Sympathy vs. Empathy | Explained
  • 3-minute read
  • 1st September 2023

Sympathy vs. Empathy | Explained

Are you sympathetic to someone’s feelings…or are you empathetic? Or do they mean the same thing? If you find sympathy vs. empathy confusing – don’t worry! We’re here to help.

While sympathy and empathy both relate to connection and understanding (and are sometimes even used interchangeably), they actually mean different things. In this post, we’ll explain the difference between sympathy and empathy, as well as how both relate to compassion.

The Definition of Sympathy

Sympathy is the act of recognizing and acknowledging another person’s feelings, even if you haven’t personally experienced them yourself. Essentially, being sympathetic means expressing care and concern for someone’s well-being (such as offering comfort during times of hardship), although you can’t directly relate to what that person is experiencing.

For example, it’s possible to be sympathetic toward, and console, a friend who has lost an important tennis match, even if you’ve never played sports yourself or were personally impacted by her loss.

Look at these examples:

The community rallied together to offer their sympathy and assistance to those affected by the natural disaster.

The cards and messages of sympathy from colleagues comforted her during her time of illness.

The Definition of Empathy

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings and perspectives of another person. It goes beyond sympathy (which requires acknowledging someone’s emotions) and involves actually feeling what the other person is feeling.

However, empathy is more than just relating to someone on an emotional level (emotional empathy): there is also a cognitive element.

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Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand someone else’s point of view and grasp their emotions without necessarily feeling them on a personal level. In other words, it allows you to mentally step into someone else’s shoes, see the situation from their perspective, and understand what they’re thinking and feeling.

Here’s how to use empathy in a sentence:

The teacher’s empathy toward her students’ individual challenges created a supportive classroom environment.

The empathy I felt for the main character of the movie helped me see things from her perspective.

Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion

Compassion is related to both empathy and sympathy – it’s a genuine concern for the well-being of others, which is often accompanied by a desire to alleviate their suffering or difficulties. Compassion goes beyond acknowledging someone’s struggles and compels action. Here’s an example to illustrate:

Her compassion for the homeless inspired her to volunteer at shelters and provide meals to those in need.

To summarize sympathy vs. empathy. vs. compassion: Sympathy is acknowledging another’s emotions, empathy is understanding and sharing another’s feelings and perspectives, and compassion is a deep concern for others’ well-being, resulting in action to alleviate their difficulties or suffering.

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