Empathy vs. Sympathy

Updated: May 4

Did you know that empathy is not the same as sympathy?


In sympathy, we observe and comment upon the person who is suffering.


Meanwhile, with empathy, we participate and comment with the person who is suffering.


It might be said that empathy is feeling with someone and sympathy is feeling for someone.


When I have sympathy, there is disconnect. The danger with sympathy is that I will begin to talk at and for the person who is distressed. This often results in me feeling better about myself for extending a rope of personal wisdom with which the one caught in the pit of despair can "simply" choose to pull themselves up to join me (sarcasm intended).


Yet, in this approach, there is typically little true comfort for the target of my sympathy. The more we try to sympathize, the more recognition grows at the distance between the sympathizer and the sufferer.


“Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” – Dr. Brené Brown

However, with empathy, there is intimate and direct connection. The benefit of empathy is that I place myself with the person who is distressed.


Any distance I, as the sympathizer, had with the sufferer is closed as I climb down to suffer with the suffering.


“Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.” – Dr. Brené Brown

Importantly, empathy does not disregard A for B with the qualifier, "at least."


I will never tell the person suffering, "I'm so sorry your child was hit by a car. At least, they are still alive." or "I'm so sorry you lost the baby. At least, you are young enough to try for another one."


In empathy, we do not say, "I'm sorry about A, but at least B." Instead, we simply join the sufferer in A.


Often, as we join them in their suffering, we will find words escaping us and love and compassion filling us. And then we will find that the greatest thing we can do is simply to sit and exist with someone.


Brene Brown offers excellent insight into connecting with people in her book: