Sympathy vs. Empathy: What's the Difference?

Sympathy is understanding someone's emotions and empathy is feeling them.

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We often come across the words empathy and sympathy when talking about how we feel. However, sympathy involves understanding someone’s emotions from our perspective and empathy involves feeling their emotions from their perspective.

Although both words are used in situations that involve emotions, they cannot be used interchangeably as they have different meanings.

This article explores the traits, differences, examples and common questions about sympathy and empathy.

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Although both words are used in situations that involve emotions, they cannot be used interchangeably as they have different meanings.

The main difference between sympathy and empathy is how we express and experience our emotions toward someone’s situation. 

According to the American Psychology Association Dictionary of Psychology, the definitions of sympathy and empathy are as follows:

  • Sympathy: “feelings of concern or compassion resulting from an awareness of the suffering or sorrow of another.”
  • Empathy: “understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts."

How to Remember the Difference

An easy way to remember what sympathy refers to is to think of the greeting card section at a store. You feel bad for someone who is going through a hard time and you express your condolences with a sympathy card.

In other words, you aren’t putting yourself in their position and imagining yourself struggling with their situation. Therefore, it is possible to have sympathy but not empathy.

Surface vs. Deep Level Understanding 

When we sympathize with someone’s unfortunate situation, we feel bad for them. We have thoughts and feelings about what they are going through but we don’t have a deep understanding of how they are feeling.

Empathizing with someone’s circumstances means we are taking the time, effort, and mental space to fully appreciate and understand how they feel. 

Understanding From Our vs. Their Perspective

Sympathy means hearing someone’s bad news, sharing our feelings about it, and saying sorry.

When we practice empathy, we dive into the depth of their emotions and envision ourselves in their situation. It’s not about how we feel about their experience but rather we are putting ourselves in their shoes, pretending to go through what they’re going through and feeling their feelings.

For instance, if your friend tells you that their dog recently passed away, you sympathize by saying “I’m sorry for your loss.” 

But if you were to empathize, you would imagine yourself losing a beloved pet and feeling the grief and loss that come with that experience.

Fun Fact: Where Did These Words Originate?

The words sympathy and empathy share the same suffix, “-pathy” which originates from the Greek word “pathos.” Pathos refers to “emotions, feelings, or passion."

Judgement vs. Non-Judgement

Sympathy involves a superficial understanding of someone’s situation; therefore, it is easy to pass judgment. Empathy allows a person to explore another person’s thoughts and feelings which helps them remove judgment.

For instance, if your sibling mentions they are getting a divorce, you sympathize by saying, “That’s terrible. It’s going to be hard on my nephew. He’s going grow up in a broken home.”

An empathetic response would be, “Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’ll be here for you through it all.”

Unsolicited Advice vs. Active Listening

Sympathizing does not involve feeling someone’s emotions; therefore, when we hear about their problem, we immediately feel the urge to fix it because we pity them. We suppress our own emotions. We don’t know exactly what they are going through and it’s easier to focus on the solution rather than validate their experiences.

When we empathize with a close one, we connect deeply to their experience. We ask questions to understand, practice active listening, read their facial expressions and body language and behave sensitively to their needs.

Which Is Better—Empathy or Sympathy?

Neither is better; it depends on the context and knowing when to use empathy or sympathy. Both empathy and sympathy are needed for emotional and mental well-being. 

When to Show Empathy

Empathy is essential for building deep and meaningful relationships with others. If you are unable to understand another person’s perspective, it can be challenging to effectively communicate and problem-solve together. 

For instance, if you and your partner are fighting, it can be difficult to resolve the conflict if you are unable to empathize with their point of view. Instead of working as a team toward a solution, you focus on trying to convince the other that you are right which creates a bigger divide in the relationship.

Empathy Fatigue

However, empathy fatigue can occur if you are overly concerned and constantly feel the feelings of others. Your energy becomes depleted and you may feel numb, burnt out, powerless, and less compassionate. You are at an increased risk of empathic distress.

When to Show Sympathy

In the age of mobile phones and social media, we are bombarded with distressing news at our fingertips; it’s easy to become overwhelmed by what’s happening in the world.

Sympathy allows us to learn and stay informed about global issues without being emotionally consumed.

Sympathy has been shown to be associated with moral and prosocial behaviors such as cooperation, sharing, low discrimination, supporting, helping, and protecting others.

Are Compassion and Empathy the Same Thing? 

Compassion and empathy is also terms that are often used interchangeably. Both involve having an understanding of someone’s emotions, connecting deeply, listening without judgment, being patient, and showing respect; however, there is a subtle difference between them. 

Compassion Involves Taking Action

Unlike empathy which is merely about feeling the emotions of others, compassion creates a desire to help others and involves taking action. You want to help relieve their pain and suffering because you truly empathize with their situation.

For instance, your friend is going through cancer treatment. You have compassion by helping them run errands, driving them to their appointments, and being mindful and sensitive about their needs.

How to Be More Sympathetic and Empathetic

Sympathy and empathy are important for relationship-building and mental wellness. Here are some tips to practice these skills to help you be more sympathetic and empathetic:

  • Learn how to read non-verbal cues
  • Instead of jumping to giving unsolicited advice, put yourself in their situation and try to imagine what they need
  • Practice active listening, ask questions, and work on understanding how another person feels
  • Self-reflect on how your conditions shaped your beliefs, values, judgments, and perspectives
  • Emotionally validate someone’s concerns
  • Learn about your own emotions and how to identify them

Therefore, there is a clear difference between sympathy and empathy. While neither is better, it’s important to know when to use each of these emotional tools depending on the situation. 

If you are having a difficult time managing your emotions and connecting with others, therapy can help you work through your emotions, build stronger relationships, improve communication skills, and increase emotional awareness.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. APA Dictionary of Psychology. Empathy.

  3. Merriam-Webster Dictionary. What’s the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy”?

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By Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP
Katharine is the author of three books (How To Deal With Asian Parents, A Brutally Honest Dating Guide and A Straight Up Guide to a Happy and Healthy Marriage) and the creator of 60 Feelings To Feel: A Journal To Identify Your Emotions. She has over 15 years of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system.