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Sympathy vs. Empathy: What exactly is the difference?

Sympathy is the ability to acknowledge and respect that someone else is experiencing an emotion - typically a negative one like pain or regret.

Empathy is the ability to truly understand and even feel what someone is going through; a full appreciation and reflection of a loved one's complicated emotional response to trauma.

Sympathy and empathy are often used - incorrectly, mind you - interchangably. Often, people say they have empathy when, in reality, they are not truly empathizing with anyone. People often say they are "sympathetic" in their pain with someone else when, by definition, they are actually experiencing empathy.

This quick article will serve as a guide for when to use each word - sympathy vs. empathy - and which scenarios and relationships each one is more appropriate in.

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What's the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Best Ways to Express Sympathy

Are empaths real?

Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

What's the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Even though popular media and colloquialism have blurred the line between them, empathy and sympathy have very different meanings, and, therefore, one may be more appropriate than another for a given context.

What is sympathy? Definition and Examples

The easiest way to define the relationships between sympathy and empathy is by using the analogy of friends vs. coworkers.

Your relationship with your friends (or family) is likely very different than with most, if not all, of your coworkers. This is not to say that coworkers can't be friends, just that, usually, there are things you will share with your friends that you wouldn't dream of bringing up in a work setting.

In this regard, sympathy is like the relationship with the coworker: You understand they have a human side, but there is a buffer of professionalism, respect for privacy, and non-presumption that keeps things distant but civil.

Sympathy is what you feel for an acquaintance who has experienced a loss or traumatic event. You can understand their sadness and offer condolences, but, to be brutally honest, it doesn't necessarily ruin your day.

For example, if you hear that Jim from accounting just lost his aunt, you will certainly be sympathetic. You've only ever talked to Jim a few times, but he seems like a good guy. You're genuinely sorry for his loss. However, you probably won't be found crying in a bathroom stall. That's sympathy.

Definition Template (20)

What is empathy? Definition and Example

Empathy, by contrast, is the brain's way of both relating to and developing further closeness with someone we love.

Empathy occurs when you feel the same emotional response that someone else does, even though the stimulus that is causing their sadness does not necessarily affect you.

For example, say your best friend Martha was fired from her job. Even though her job was not yours, so it's not like you're losing your income or feeling like a failure, you'll still likely feel pain and sadness upon hearing the news.

You care deeply for Martha, so her pain is your pain. That is empathy.

Sympathy and empathy both have their uses, and one is not necessarily "better" than the other. They simply denote two ways humans can relate to each other in the most appropriate way.

Best Ways to Express Sympathy

Sympathy and empathy are somewhat more complicated than baser emotions like fear and anger. As such, it can be difficult to know when and how to express each one.

If someone you are not particularly close with suffers a loss, the appropriate response may not be empathy. If someone you barely know loses her mother, for example, it may not be appropriate to display empathy by pushing to the front of the crowd and exclaiming, "I'm feeling exactly what you're feeling right now, too!"

This is because, unless you also just lost your mother, you probably aren't feeling what they are. You can understand in rough terms how they feel, but you're not empathizing. You're sympathizing!

It's also important to note that empathizing (or claiming to empathize) with someone you aren't close with can make it seem like you are trying to take the "spotlight" (that is, the attention and support coming from others that is intrinsic after a loss) off of the person who has actually been through the loss.

The best way to express sympathy is often to go the other way: Make it clear you can't imagine how they are feeling right now.

Here are some practical ways to show sympathy and support for someone without crowding their grief:

  • Offer sympathies and condolences verbally.
  • Send a sympathy card or small gift.
  • Offer to help out: covering their shift, taking care of some errands, or just offering to be an ear if they want to talk. Note: Don't push too hard with this. If they ask for privacy, you should respect that.

Are empaths real?

The answer to this question depends on what you mean by "empath." There are two types of empaths - one is real, and the other is not.

Real "empaths" are simply people who experience a bit more empathy than the average person. Typically those of a very high emotional intelligence or with a particular sensitivity to emotion, these real empaths can feel, to a more intense degree, what a stranger is feeling - but only if the stranger is expressing their feelings externally.

Note that these people aren't really called empaths in the scientific and medical community, but that some media may refer to them as such.

The other kind of empath - people who claim to have an almost supernatural ability to detect and then feel the emotions of strangers, even when they are hiding it - is pure fiction. You may see people on social media or TV claiming to be this kind of empath, often to a swelling follower base or alongside a product or service they are selling.

In a similar vein to clairvoyants, mediums, ghosthunters, and mindreaders, anyone claiming to be this kind of empath is either trying to take your money or has tricked even themselves into really believing they possess this power. Rest assured: they do not.

Therapy in Austin: Williamsburg Therapy Group

If you or someone you know is undergoing emotional distress, know that there are resources that can help.

Talk therapy with a licensed professional is a great way to get scientifically-validated treatment and progress through the healing journey.

At Williamsburg Therapy Group, our Austin therapy office is staffed with some of the most experienced therapists available - all doctoral-level.

Give us a call, and our patient coordinator will help you find the right fit. Feeling better may be closer than you think.

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