Empathy vs Sympathy: Understanding the Difference

Empathy vs Sympathy: Understanding the Difference


All men are born firstly with the instinct to protect themselves. But few grow to really love themselves, and even fewer learn to love their neighbor as themselves.

Criss Jami

We often use the words “empathy” and “sympathy” interchangeably. Yet despite their frequent pairing, the two describe very different emotional experiences. While closely related in meaning and effect, empathy and sympathy diverge in important ways that impact how we connect with and support others.  By clarifying the distinctions between them, we can nurture more conscious emotional intelligence within ourselves and our relationships. We can lean into empathy’s power to deeply understand others’ experiences without appropriating them. And we can balance compassion with wisdom in offering sympathy without assuming false equivalency between our own and others’ struggles.   

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What is the Difference between Empathy and Sympathy

In essence, empathy involves opening our awareness to resonate with and reflect the emotional state of another. We are attuned to “feel with” them by mirroring their experience from their perspective without judgment (Tornoe 2016).  In contrast, sympathy entails imagining how we would feel in their situation, then feeling “for” them by relating their circumstances to our conceptual understanding and past experiences (Tornoe 2016).  Both empathy and sympathy describe forms of emotional connection and support. But empathy works from the inside-out, grounded in the somatic, experiential reality of the other. Sympathy works from the outside in, referencing our worldview to approximate their inner state based on external conditions.   

Fundamentally, empathy pulls us into deeper rapport while sympathy maintains our separateness (Krznaric 2014). Empathy bridges that gap through shared feeling states whereas sympathy requires the divide to pity, console, or extend compassion from afar.   Empathy calls us to be fully present with someone’s emotional landscape without trying to interpret it. Sympathy calls us to offer comfort, condolences, or aid shaped by our assumptions about how they likely feel. Both aim to help – empathy through close listening and reflecting, and sympathy through consoling and supporting (Tornoe 2016).

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Levels of Empathy 

Empathy has roots in the German concept of einfühlung meaning “feeling into” another’s emotional state. Humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers established empathy as foundational for therapeutic change by “entering the private perceptual world of the other” (Bohart 2019).  Contemporary researchers break empathy down into multiple layers and types. Affective empathy allows us to directly mirror emotions biologically through activated mirror neurons and limbic system structures. We quite literally resonate with joy, sadness, anger, or pain broadcast by others (Seppala 2014).  On a higher level, cognitive empathy enables us to intellectually take perspective and infer emotional states through psychological lenses and life experiences.

Connecting details outwardly observed with internalized meaning-making, we conceptually grasp the feelings of those around us (Seppala 2014). At its peak, empathic attunement transcends mirroring or imagining feelings and enters a state of presence described by psychologist Daniel Siegel as “mindsight.” We observe emotions as they arise without identifying with them, allowing deeper connection through understanding rather than reaction or assumption (Seppala, 2014).  Thus empathy ranges from involuntary emotional contagion up through conscious perspective taking to mindful resonance with a fuller 360-degree awareness of the causes, conditions, and transient nature of underlying feelings.

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The Roots of Sympathy   

Sympathy also reflects varying motivations and modes of connecting, with roots in the Greek term sympatheia denoting “common feeling” (Dixon 2019). We extend sympathy when acknowledging troubles faced by conveying solidarity in sentiment if not experience. A message of sympathy communicates care and concern rooted in good intentions. But it can remain removed from empathy’s call to be fully present with someone’s suffering without attempting to grasp, interpret, or explain it via our worldview. As with empathy, motivations matter – sympathy can serve to validate difficulties or alleviate distress. But it can also subtlety reinforce judgments about others needing sympathy or our superiority in offering it from a secure standpoint untouched by similar adversity (Dixon 2019).

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Pitfalls of Empathy & Sympathy 

Despite the positives, both empathy and sympathy have their limitations which may turn them from strengths into weaknesses. Experts caution that despite best intentions, empathy can still project assumptions onto others’ realities which dilute authentic understanding. We may “feel for” someone based on a drama triangle narrative that paints them as victims needing rescue by a saviour, for instance. Research also finds that empathy declines as the psychological distance grows between our own and others’ life experiences.

Cognitive bias creeps in as we less easily extend empathy for those of different demographics or worldviews (Tornoe 2016).  Similarly, sympathy from a standpoint of privilege can breed pity rather than empowerment. It risks being received as a hollow sentiment lacking deeper emotional investment or commitment to meaningful support. Flimsy sympathy also frequently turns to judgment when ongoing troubles continue without clear resolution (“I felt for you, but why haven’t you moved on yet?”)

Read More: Cognitive Biases in Everyday Life

Active Empathetic Listening

So what differentiates constructive empathy and compassionate sympathy from distorted projections of our inner narratives? The medicine is mindfulness – cultivating wider awareness of biases underlying reactions while giving space for authentic understanding. Active empathetic listening asks us to approach relationships with open receptivity and curiosity rather than preconceived assumptions or problem-solving attempts. We connect to common humanity – “There but for the grace go I”. But we also honor individual nuance and avoid false equivalencies implying we fully grasp another’s hardships. Likewise, compassionate sympathy conveys care through validating difficulties and offering practical assistance if appropriate without undermining personal agency. We can acknowledge troubles with humility rather than superiority or pity, relating without attempting to explain or fix them.  

Balancing Empathy’s Embrace With Compassion’s Wisdom 

Just as compassion alone risks enabling unhealthy behaviour if not paired with wisdom, empathy alone risks emotional merging without secure self-boundaries. Our care should empower others’ growth, not breed passivity or dependence. We can hold both unconditional positive regard while also maintaining clear perceptions and ethical boundaries. Insight balanced with care nurtures change without judgment. Such mindful sympathetic empathy asks us to look, listen, and feel fully while also clearly communicating our values and limitations around personal health and conduct.

By better understanding empathy’s call to connect through raw felt experience versus sympathy’s expressions of care and concern, we better navigate supporting others through life’s inevitable ups and downs with emotional intelligence. Our relationships thrive when compassion comes seasoned with wisdom – empathetic but not enmeshed; sympathetic but not superior. For in truly relating to one another, we touch the common threads that bind our shared humanity.

Read More Articles From Psychologs

  • Bohart, Arthur C. “Empathy in Client-Centered Therapy.” The Person-Centered Journal, vol. 25, no. 1-2, 2019, pp. 41-56. 
  • Dixon, Thomas. “The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy.” Nursing Times, 2019, https://www.nursingtimes.net. Accessed 4 Jan 2023.
  • Krznaric, Roman. Empathy: A Handbook for Revolution. Random House, 2014.
  • Seppala, Emma. “Compassion and Empathy in Society.” Oxford Handbooks Online, 2014, DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195398991.013.017. Accessed 4 Jan 2023. 
  • Tornoe, Rob. “The Important Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy.” Entrepreneur, 11 May 2016, https://www.entrepreneur.com. Accessed 4 Jan 2023.

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