When a friend is suffering from some misfortune, loss, or stressful experience, we want to be able to commiserate in a way that is both helpful and supportive. Whether it’s a physical problem, like a health issue, or an emotional problem, like a breakup from a romantic partner, how do we respond in a way that emanates warmth and understanding? Do we offer sympathy or empathy?
Empathy and sympathy are similar, yet they differ in how they can make one who is suffering feel. Empathy is a sense that you can understand and share the feelings of another. This "shared" experience can generate a profound understanding because you attempt to know what it’s like to “walk in their shoes.”
Let’s take an example: Your friend’s Mom just died of cancer. If someone you know has died, you may feel empathy for your friend because you have “been there”—you remember how lost you were, and how alone you felt. You recall how for months or longer you felt like you had a huge hole in your heart and your life. Because of the shared experience, you may know how the other feels so you can really empathize with their sense of emptiness and utter loss. But even if you never experienced whatever your friend is experiencing, you can still feel empathy by mentally or emotionally putting yourself in "their shoes."
Unfortunately, while researching my new book, Outsmart Your Smartphone, I discovered that now, in the digital age, we are less likely to be empathic and more likely to be narcissistic. So we have a lot of work to do to get our empathy gears moving again.
Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune. Sympathy may not be received as well as empathy, but sorrowful sympathy can offer some warmth and support in the face of someone else’s misfortune—if administered with sensitivity and sincerity.
On the other hand, if you give sympathy by feeling pity, it may generate feelings of alienation in others. Of course, try to be as authentic as possible in responding to others. But also try to be sensitive to the needs, desires, and emotions of the person who is hurting. Even just being there silently for him or her can often be helpful.
What About Compassion?
Compassion is more of an attitude, a way of thinking—it's a tendency to care for others and humanity, even from a distance. Compassion may reach further than a single individual potentially to masses of people with a particular ailment, experience, or hardship. Although compassion is generally good for us and others, health workers, nurses, and other service personnel can sometimes suffer compassion fatigue because caring for others, emotionally or physically, can be exhausting. And this can hurt their well-being.
In Sum: Empathy vs. Sympathy
Empathy is a one-on-one connection because of a deep understanding that comes from sharing an emotional experience. Sympathy is a feeling of sadness or pity felt for another person. And compassion is a broader sense of care for the world at large.
Konrath, S. (2013). The empathy paradox: Increasing disconnection in the age of increasing connection. In Handbook of research on technoself: Identity in a technological society (pp. 204-228). IGI Global.