Caring for others in times of need is one of the unique and beautiful acts of being human. There are a variety of ways in which we can achieve this, and the ways we do this have a huge impact on the degree of social connection we experience. By understanding differences between empathy vs sympathy, we can more effectively respond to the struggles of others.
Sympathy is often seen as a benevolent approach to the suffering of others. However, it is empathy that has the greater potential for social connection.
The ability to empathize holds a far superior position in emotional intelligence than sympathy. Empathy is a powerful social skill that separates genuine and truly caring people from social mediocrity.
How does this difference between empathy and sympathy affect our social interactions?
A desire to connect and understand are the key points of empathy. Empathy is derived from Greek – em which means ‘within,’ and pathos which means ‘passion, feeling, or suffering.’ This aspect of compassion focuses on the connection of two internal worlds.
Empathy includes many emotional states, but all types of empathy share the common theme of interpersonal connection. We usually think of emotional empathy, but examples of empathetic states include cognitive empathy and somatic empathy.
Empathy is the ability to take on the perspective of someone else and to experience their emotions and thoughts from their perspective. Furthermore, you must accomplish this without getting too involved. Empathy is the practice of finding relatable personal experience to connect with their situation.
Asking “how are you feeling?” listening intently, and genuinely caring are traits of an empathetic person.
Sympathy remains a compassionate trait, and is far better than apathy (which is to feel nothing at all).
However, in empathy vs sympathy, sympathy comes second to empathy, due to the lack of internal connection that empathy achieves.
Sympathy aims to mentally emulate the position of the struggling person. People expressing sympathy fail to factor the beliefs, fears, and complete perspective of the person they are expressing compassion to.
Sympathy is an emotion that expresses sorrow for the situation, without interconnectedness. Sympathetic people often have judgmental thoughts and can belittle others’ predicaments. They will offer advice without truly listening and understanding the troubles of others.
A common term used by sympathetic people is ‘at least.’ For example, a sympathetic person may say something along the lines of, “Well, at least you still have your health.” This term, while intended to put a person’s struggles into a broader perspective, makes a person’s struggle smaller and belittles their feelings. Sympathy is a very low form of compassion, but at least it’s not apathetic.
Sympathy comes from Greek, sym meaning “together with.” Noticeably, not a deep enough togetherness to add true compassion.
Examples of Empathy vs Sympathy
The differences between empathy vs sympathy are easy to understand in theory. However, in practice, it can a very a different story.
Here are some examples to help you understand how to implement empathy vs sympathy.
The Deep Dark Hole
Personal strife is like a deep and dark hole that someone has fallen into.
An empathetic person would get into that hole, with the fallen person, and feel how it is in the abyss. They are with them in the situation and take action to be there.
A sympathetic person would be shouting from the top of the hole and asking how that person is feeling. They might have a general idea of what a dark hole feels like, but make no attempts to be there with them.
A person in trouble is similar to being stuck in a mudslide. The person is stuck and the mud is slippery and difficult to break free from.
Someone who over-identifies with the struggling person would jump into the mud with them. They are now both stuck in the mud, and both unable to help anyone, let alone themselves.
A sympathetic person would be outside the mud on the safe ground. They would be shouting instructions to the person stuck in the mud. They will not get their hands dirty.
An empathetic person would grab a branch or a rope and go into the mud to help them out. They would get in just enough to help, but not enough to get stuck themselves.
Emotional turmoil is like a river that someone is drowning in.
An apathetic person would ignore the person drowning in the river. They would be indifferent and emotionless.
A sympathetic person would think of how they’ve escaped their own emotional rivers. They can relate to the feeling of drowning in a river.
An empathetic person would know that each river is unique. They would think about how it would be to be them and be stuck in that particular river. They would feel how it is to be stuck in the river of the drowning person, and would feel how the drowning person feels.
The path to compassion follows the stages of: 1.) pity, 2.) sympathy, 3.) empathy, and 4.) compassion. We too often get stuck between the middle two. The practice and application of empathy are what will lead you to become a truly compassionate person. Understanding the differences between empathy vs sympathy will ultimately be self-beneficial, and beneficial to our loved ones.
Watch this video by the brilliant Vishen Lakhiani to see how empathy can rewire your brain:
Where do you believe you stand in the stages of compassion? How could you improve your level of compassion? Please share with us in the comment section below!
If you want to become more compassionate and productive, Emily Fletcher's Masterclass on Meditation for Super Performance is absolutely FREE and plays on Mindvalley Academy.