Empathy vs. Sympathy: How to Tell the Difference

When it comes to managing our relationships with others, it is crucial to approach our interactions with both empathy and sympathy. Though these terms are often used interchangeably, they actually refer to slightly different concepts.

The definition of empathy vs. sympathy can easily be misunderstood, so make sure to keep reading this article to unveil the difference.

Learn in This Article

  • Empathy vs. Sympathy: Are They the Same
  • How to Identify Empathy and Sympathy
  • How to Practice Empathy
  • How to Practice Sympathy
  • Types of Empathy in Psychology
    • Cognitive Empathy
    • Emotional Empathy
    • Compassionate Empathy
  • Key Takeaways

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Are They the Same

According to Merriam-Webster, both sympathy and empathy come from the Greek term pathos, which means experience or emotion. Let’s take a look at their definitions in more depth.

What Is Empathy?

The simple definition of empathy is the ability to feel and share the emotions of others. If you have empathy, you are able to identify and comprehend other people’s thoughts, feelings, and mental states based on their words and behaviors. So, when we feel empathy for another person, we are not only sharing their emotions but also trying to understand their perspective.

What Is Sympathy?

In contrast to empathy, the definition of sympathy is simply having the feeling of compassion, sorrow, or pity for the suffering or misfortune of others. This way, we offer our support and condolences without necessarily trying to understand their experience.

How to Identify Empathy and Sympathy

Although empathy and sympathy are often confused with one another, there are some key differences that can help us distinguish these similar concepts. Consider the following tips for identifying empathy vs. sympathy in your own interactions.

  • Pay attention to the intent of your actions.
  • Reflect on your own experiences. 
  • Consider how empathy and sympathy may be manifested in different situations or relationships.
  • Seek out opportunities to develop empathy for others and practice using this skill in various contexts.

Ultimately, both empathy and sympathy can be crucial in supporting others. In some cases, empathy may be more effective, while sympathy may be more appropriate on other occasions. The key is to be aware and use your best judgment in each situation.

If you are still unsure about empathy vs. sympathy, here are a few examples to understand these concepts better.

Examples of Empathy

If you are an empathic person, you might feel sad whenever a friend is not feeling well. At the same time, if a coworker feels satisfied with their promotion, you might find yourself feeling happy about their success. In fact, empathic people may be more likely to help others in need.

Overall, empathy is a complex psychological construct that plays a vital role in social interactions and altruistic behavior.

Examples of Sympathy

Examples of sympathy include offering words of comfort to someone who has lost a loved one, giving money to a charity that helps people in need, or even just smiling at someone who looks sad. In some cases, people may also offer their help or services free of charge as an act of sympathy. 

Whatever form it takes, sympathy is an integral part of human nature that helps us connect with each other and make the world a better place.

A severe lack of empathy or sympathy might indicate a serious personality disorder or, at the very least, a mood disorder.

How to Practice Empathy

If you want to learn how to be more empathetic, here are some things you can do to practice this skill.

Listen Actively

When you interact with others, make sure that you listen to what they say (and sometimes, what they don’t say) and try to understand things from their perspective. This will help you better identify with their emotions and experiences.

Repeat in Your Own Words

After someone has finished speaking, take a moment to repeat what they have said back to them in your own words. This will help to ensure that you have understood their standpoint and can offer empathy in response.

Put Emotional Intelligence First

When you are trying to be more empathetic, it’s essential that you’re aware of your own emotions and how they might affect your interactions with others. Don’t let your own biases or preconceptions get in the way of truly understanding another person.

Understand What the Other Person Needs

When offering empathy, you need to understand what the other person needs, whether they state it or not. In some cases, they simply need you to listen and be there for them. Other times, they may need your help to solve a problem or accomplish a goal. Make sure you offer empathy in a helpful and appropriate way depending on the situation.

By practicing empathy in your life, you can become a more compassionate and understanding person. Whether you are interacting with friends, family members, coworkers, or strangers, empathy can help you better understand others’ points of view and build meaningful relationships.

How to Practice Sympathy

Apart from knowing how to practice empathy, you should also know when the right time is to be sympathetic.

Be There for Others

One of the best ways to practice sympathy is simply by being there for others when they’re going through a difficult time. This may involve offering support and comfort or even just lending an ear so that person can vent their feelings.

Send a Card or Write a Note

A simple gesture can go a long way to show someone that you are thinking of them and care about their well-being. If you know someone going through a tough time, consider sending them a card or a note to let them know that you’re there for them.

Make a Donation

Another way to show your sympathy is by making a donation to a charity or non-profit organization that helps those in need. This could be a local homeless shelter, an animal rescue organization, or even just a general fund for people who are struggling to make ends meet.

Types of Empathy in Psychology

Unfortunately, therapists have been debating the concept of sympathy vs. empathy in psychology.

For instance, empathy can be classified in a number of ways, but it is often classified into cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy, also known as perspective-taking, is the ability to understand another person’s point of view. Otherwise known as empathic accuracy, cognitive empathy involves having more comprehensive knowledge about another person’s mind, including how the person feels.

Emotional Empathy

Emotional empathy, also known as affective empathy, is the ability to catch the emotions of others. This type of empathy involves being able to directly experience another person’s feelings.

Compassionate Empathy

Compassionate empathy, also known as empathic concern, is the ability to feel compassion for another person. This type of empathy involves feeling empathy for someone in need or experiencing hardship.

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Key Takeaways

There is a lot of debate in the psychological community about the difference between empathy and sympathy. Some argue that these concepts are entirely distinct, while others propose that they are interrelated and can even be used interchangeably.

At their core, both concepts are forms of understanding and responding to other people’s feelings. Still, they differ in terms of the direction of that response: empathy involves putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, while sympathy encourages us to offer support or help to others.

Regardless of where one falls on this spectrum, it is clear that both empathy and sympathy play important roles in establishing meaningful human connections.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is empathy better than sympathy?

This is a difficult question to answer, as empathy and sympathy both have their own advantages. Some argue that empathy is better than sympathy because it allows us to understand another person’s perspective more deeply. In contrast, others claim that sympathy is more effective in creating positive relationships due to its focus on offering support.
However, one thing is pretty clear—the lack of empathy or sympathy does not help nurture your relationships with the people around you.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Both sympathy and empathy are important emotions that allow us to connect with and care for others. However, there is a subtle difference in the way that these terms are typically used.

While sympathy is generally centered on understanding another person’s point of view or situation, empathy goes a step further by allowing us to step into another person’s shoes and actually feel what they may be feeling.
So, although both have essential roles in the human experience, they are also slightly different concepts. Ultimately, it is up to each individual to decide when and how to best use these concepts when connecting with others.

Why is empathy important?

Empathy is important in building strong relationships with the people around us. When we are able to empathize with someone, we can better understand their feelings and perspectives, which makes it easier to connect with them on a deeper level. Additionally, empathy can also lead to more positive outcomes in relationships, as those who feel empathy for others are more likely to offer support and understanding and listen without judgment. 

However, sympathy is also just as important, and knowing how to identify empathy vs. sympathy will help you navigate social situations and build deeper bonds with the people you care about.