The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

Meditations in Motion

Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. – Romans 12:15

My friends know that one of the rules I live by is “No one cries alone.” It’s actually not a rule, more like a reflex. If someone in my vicinity is crying, I am also crying. It’s contagious, kind of like yawning.

On the other hand, laughter is contagious too. My hubby Bill has an infectious laugh. He often laughs until tears stream down his cheeks. It is impossible not to laugh when this man is laughing.

Empathy is one of the most important human emotions. It allows us to feel connected to others. We all need to be understood; empathy satisfies that need. It’s what allows us to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s the ability to put yourself in someone else’s place, to feel the same emotions they are feeling.

Empathy is different than sympathy. When you feel sympathy, you are putting yourself on a higher emotional plane than the person you are sorry for; when you feel empathy, you are on the same level.

Sympathy allows us to look down on another person and feel sorry they are experiencing pain; empathy makes us go where that person is, to get our hands and knees dirty and actually experience what the other person is feeling.

Even though we may not have had the same life experiences as others – we may have never lost a spouse, had a child who suffered from a life-threating illness, or been fired from a job – the emotions associated with these situations are universal. We have all felt pain, fear, and loss.

As Christians, we believe that Christ coming to earth as a human man is the ultimate act of empathy. I believe we all should cultivate more empathy and less sympathy.

*It is my plan to document the arrival of spring here in this corner of Southeastern Pennsylvania through the progression of blooming flowers. This is the third picture in the series. The flowers pictured above are Crocus (Crocus vernus). I found these while walking my dog Benji. Situated near a south-facing wall, they are the first ones I have seen this spring.

I am linking with Cee’s FOTD Challenge, Welcome Heart for Let’s Have Coffee, Worth Beyond Rubies, Debbie at Dare 2 Hear, Reflections From Me for A Blogging Good Time, Random-osity for Little Things Thursdays, It’s a Small Town Life for Thankful Thursday, Crystal Storms for Heart Encouragement, Rachel Marie Lee, Lori Schumaker for Moments of Hope, Knit by God’s Hand for Thankful Thursdays, and Soaring with Him for Recharge Wednesday.

Please click on the following link to read more funny or inspirational one-liners. One-Liner Wednesday.

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47 comments

  1. This is so true.
    I would never be interested in sympathy. Empathy, maybe one day.
    Happy Wednesday! It’s national oreo cookie day (and frozen food and white chocolate cheesecake whatever that is)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Those flowers seem so Springy, even if everything else is not. This was an interesting post Laurie. I am able to empathize with people as to their medical woes as my mom had so many medical issues her entire life. So I sat in on many doctor consultations, received the bad news as she did, tried to help her with her medical issues, so I find it easy to put myself in their shoes. I’ve seen the struggle firsthand. We need to share each other’s sad days as well as their glad days and triumphs and be ready with the right word or just to hold a hand to show we care. I am reminded of this quote by Mother Teresa which sums it all up: “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Teresa

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sorry it took me so long to respond, Linda. I was in Costa Rica with very spotty internet access. You are a very empathetic person. You write lovingly about your friends and acquaintances, you show concern for their well-being, and you even put yourself in the place of the furry and feathered friends that you meet. I love the Mother Theresa quote. Thank you for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you Laurie – that is kind of you to say that. I used to send out a daily quote for everyone at the office when Robb/I were still at the Firm. Mother Theresa and Eleanor Roosevelt were two of my favorites for female quotations; for males, Will Rogers, Mark Twain and Dr. Seuss.
        I remembered you were in Costa Rica. I’ll be looking forward to your posts about your trip – will you be including any vacation pics in your blog? I’ll bet you got some colorful photos and unusual birds and maybe small animals. Hopefully the weather cooperated. Glad you are home safely – there have been a lot of airplane issues lately as you probably have heard since you returned … not just the Ethiopia Boeing 727 crash, but some other smaller airliner issues as well. I have not heard from my friend Ilene in 10 days – kind of concerned as she was having trouble with her AOL and lost internet for 5 days back in late January, but having no e-mail for 10 days sounds unlikely. I hope she does not have any more problems as a result of her fall last November again.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post Laurie, I too have been concerned with the overall lack of empathy I am witnessing in our western society.
    I have a post ready for next week on this very subject actually!
    God has a theme going! 😀
    Blessings,
    Jennifer

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Love “…get our hands and knees dirty and actually experience what the other person is feeling.”

    Coincidentally, I was just telling a friend the other day that I did not feel a lot of empathy from our mutual yoga mentor. It’s made a difference to me – when I share with the mentor, I feel a cool and clinical detachment from her. Could it be that her former life as a practicing psychologist puts up a professional wall?

    I think all we need to know is that others care! They can practice detachment but a warm smile or hug or touch of a hand can signal “I care”.

    Liked by 1 person

      • I work for a crisis chat line. Having empathy is so very important when trying to help a wounded heart. We have several that come in devastated over a broken heart from a break up. For some they would be like “it’s ok you’ll move on and you will heal in time” but that’s not what they need. They need someone standing with them in their pain. Very good topic to discuss.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Hi Laurie, I’d like to stand up for sympathy. 🙂

    While there can be a sense of the word sympathy which could perhaps imply a ‘looking down upon’ (as in feeling sorrow, or pity, which is not exactly the same thing) the word sympathy has two other, more generalised meanings: It can be a rapport or understanding between people, sharing a common feeling – ie empathy would be a synonym of sympathy in this sense. It can also mean to respond in a similar (The Greek root Sun -> sum -> sym means the same) or corresponding action. Magnetic fields can resonate with electric fields ‘in sympathy’ without one feeling superior to the other. 😉

    I don’t think the branch of greeting cards that fall under the title of ‘In Sympathy’ would be as popular as they are if everyone thought they were being looked down upon when they received one – would they??

    I do agree that i would prefer to empathise with someone who is hurt or suffering, but i would be either reluctant or hypocritical if i felt i should be feeling their pain if they had a broken leg for example, or if i thought i could possibly empathise with a woman who had just lost a child or was dealing with a loved one with a profound disability for the rest of their life? Then i think sym-pathy might be the closest i could get (in it’s better sense!) 🙂

    While all of us have at some time felt pain or loss, there are some who experience these things to a degree i sincerely wish i never have to and i don’t think i could put myself in their shoes, even for a second. I can only imagine what it may be like and even then i suspect i may not be doing the feeling any kind of justice.

    A lady above mentioned her Yoga mentor was formerly a psychiatrist. I can state from experience that they are taught very early in their studies to not be empathetic, not to get too close to what the patient feels, as they are very likely to be overwhelmed by the constant negative emotions they have to deal with in other people day after day. Protecting themselves from that level of psychic devastation is their number one priority. (After giving a convincing impression to the patient that they are caring, decent people of course!) 😉

    It’s probably quite difficult to break that habit after some time in the job.

    Love the crocus photo! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I have to agree with you. Sympathy is important too, and may sometimes be used as a synonym for empathy. I think what I was trying to get at was that we should not put ourselves above those who are going through a rough patch. We ALL go through rough patches; it comes with living. We must respond from a place of equality and service, rather than condescending.

      Like

      • I can be VERY literally minded sometimes! 😉 (OK – pedantic about the use of words is what i mean!) 🙂

        I agree it can be a very human trait to consider some who struggle as to be somehow ‘less’ than they themselves are, that it must somehow be their fault or that they are not ‘strong’ enough.

        This can imbue a sense of superiority in some people over said sufferer(s).

        Christ demonstrated and taught the importance of having the attitude of a humble servant when dealing with the disadvantaged. (My blog’s Creed No. 2 states it – Phillippians 2:8) Humility is the key and pride must have no place in our heart or mind when it comes to sympathising with or empathising with (when possible) those in need of help or succour.

        Condescending is an interesting word come to think of it. Most would see it as a very negative term, but it has the roots of Con = with-together-joined and descend = to go down, so it should mean to go down with: to be at the same level as someone, presumably someone who is feeling ‘down’. Ideally i would imagine so you could then help them lift themselves back ‘up’ to where they once were??

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      • We should all follow Christ’s example of humility and servitude. Unfortunately, we are all human and fall short of that mark sometimes.

        I think your etymology of the word “condescending” is interesting. I think at one time “condescend” had a much more positive connotation. Now, it is similar to “patronizing”, a negative term. I wonder why the change occurred.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, empathy is something we should definitely all cultivate more. It makes a big difference. I don’t know if you’ve seen Brene Brown’s video describing empathy but your post reminded me of it. It’s only about 3 minutes long and you can find it on YouTube.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. While I consider myself generally to be a rather empathetic person, I don’t cry if someone is crying — well, not automatically, anyway. I come from a long line of stoic women, and I don’t cry often at all.

    Your post got me thinking, as all good posts do, so I looked up the definition of sympathy (feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune). I guess if sympathy comes from a source of pity, of course no one would be comforted by that. But what if it’s a source of sorrow for another person? Can’t we be sorry that someone is going through a rough patch without pitying them? Why are there sympathy cards instead of empathy cards?

    It’s definitely a fascinating topic & you got me thinking. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I agree about the cards. I don’t think sympathy is a bad thing. If we can feel sorrow for another’s misfortunes, that is a good thing. I think the main thing is to be able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes. Whatever you call that, I think we need more of.

      Liked by 1 person

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