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Empathy Vs Sympathy: Why Does The Difference Matter?

Empathy vs sympathy


Are you one of those who confuse empathy for sympathy without understanding which one to use and when? 

You perhaps interchange sympathy for empathy in a sentence or scenario and think, “well they are all the same.”

Or you are unsure of the difference.  

It can get pretty confusing and perhaps embarrassing right?

Empathy and sympathy are polar opposites. And that clarity is what this article is set to bring.

Before I launch into questions people ask, like: “Is empathy a skill?” “Can you be empathetic without being sympathetic?” “Why do I feel empathy but not sympathy?” I should say that having a good grasp of empathy meaning against sympathy definition, is at the core of answering the afore-listed questions.

For starters, this chart illustrates what can be found in empathy, but not present in sympathy. And vice-versa. 

empathy vs sympathy


Definition of empathy vs sympathy

Empathy is understanding and entering into another’s feeling, while sympathy is a feeling corresponding to that which another feels; being affected by another’s feeling.

To elaborate, empathy is felt in the interest of the other person. It drives one to do what is in the interest of the other person. In the article, ‘Things no one told you about feeling,’ I mentioned that feelings represent needs; or rather, a demand on the mind to perform work (to think). Therefore, it is only rational that when feelings arise, the need it highlights are met. This is exactly what empathy does.

empathy vs sympathy


Sympathy, on the other hand, is felt in a way that shows solidarity with another person’s feeling. However, it does not yield any positive benefit towards the bearer. This kind of feeling is self-serving, as it is often a way we ease our own burden.

Sympathy can be destructive; it breeds complacency in the other person, which does not take growth into cognizance.

When you treat others with sympathy, although it might provide the other person a feeling of shared solidarity, but such effect is short-lived, just as with the effect of external validation. Moreover, it does not yield growth.


Importance of empathy in our life

The reason why empathy is important in various facets of our lives is not far-fetched. It breeds the most genuine form of relationship that leads to growth.

  1. Connection

Empathy builds connection between individuals.

The only reason you are able to empathize with another is that you understand what they truly need and are willing to offer it to them, as against what they want. This is such that when empathy is effective, it births profound breakthrough.

Alternatively, sympathy does well to soak up the feeling of another, in order to ease their own burden. Or consider themselves as ‘empaths.’

For example, when you see a sad movie and feel the anguish of the actor. The feeling you soak off the screen is not in the interest of the actor. It does nothing to provide succor for the actor; rather, it is solely to release your own pent-up feeling.

2. Altruism

Empathy spurs altruism. This is such that your interest gears towards unselfish concern for the welfare of the others.


3.  Capacity

Empathy creates resilience which leads the person to build on the inherent possibility  that exist within them (capacity). This is such that the target of this feeling is able to see what is within them and reach for their inner strength to build on an already existing template.

This ultimately leads to growth. 

empathy vs sympathy


Is empathy an emotion?

Yes. Empathy is an emotion just as sympathy is. However, mastering the use of empathy emotion transforms it into a skill. A person who does not understand what empathy emotion holds, cannot use it effectively, and therefore, cannot build such skill.

It is also important to note that you cannot be empathetic without being sympathetic. But you can be sympathetic without being empathetic. The movement from sympathy to empathy is a choice.

Do you see the difference?


Examples of empathy vs sympathy

Listening vs providing response

Empathetic listening is a great form of showing empathy. Dr Brene Brown an empathy psychology expert, has this to say on this subject of empathy vs sympathy: “empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection.” She also further illustrated that “rarely does response make something better.”

Sometimes, you are tempted to give response that invalidates their feelings and sprinkles your ‘me-too’ stories into the conversation. This act although, well meaningful, can be invalidating to the listener and it does not provide the succor they need.

Pro Tip: Practice effective listening without attempting to provide your ‘me-too’ dishes. You unconsciously place their pain on a comparison table, when you do. 

In other words, hearing your own story does not provide validity for their pain.

Creating boundaries vs “rescue” mission

No healthy relationship can survive without a healthy boundary. The avoidance of this is often why some people get into abusive relationships because they feel sympathy for their partners.

Love does not thrive in sympathyClick To TweetPro Tip: Love does not thrive in sympathy

Sympathy can be muddily. It does not allow you to see the genuine need of the other. Sometimes, what the other person needs is not getting into the muddy boat with them and endangering your life (sympathy).

What they need is creating a boundary that vehemently allows them to see the errors in their own ways, which will then provide them a chance to evolve or grow (empathy).

Do not attempt to “rescue” them from themselves. Setting boundaries is about loving yourself, because it is through this way that you can truly love the other person.


Examples of empathy statements vs sympathy statements

  1. Empathy says, “I always feel sad for these slave workers, I’m working on a project that will give them a voice.”

Sympathy says, “I always feel terrible for these slave workers. Its very sad.”

  1. Empathy says, “It’s sad to see this man asking for alms. I must figure out how I can take him off the street.

Sympathy says, “It’s sad to see this man begging for alms. I should give him some money.”

empathy vs sympathy



Sympathy: You visit a friend who loses a loved one. You take in their pain and grief and wish for all things to make their pain go away, because you cannot stand watching them deal with such pain.

Sympathy wishes to take another’s pain away or attempts to “rescue” one from themselves.

Empathy: You understand that no matter how much you love this person, you cannot make their pain go away. The best you can do is to be present, listen and validate. This you do, knowing that once the denial phase (grief) elapses, acceptance will set in (healing).

Empathy does not wish. She does not attempt to interfere, she intervenes.


Why is empathy important in leadership?

As with every other facet of life, empathy forms the basis of any true leadership.

In a research carried out by Management research group, it cited empathy in leadership as twice as important, among the behaviors relevant for effective leadership.

Have a look:

empathy in leadership
  • Empathy drills a leader to build connection with other members of a team, for a collective goal and astounding result. 
  • It builds capacity required for growth.
  • A true leader looks at a long-term goal, structures and implements it, no matter the cost, in the interest of permanently eradicating that problem.
  • An empathetic leader puts his or her feeling into action.
  • Empathy helps one stay grounded in making tough decisions.
  • It is also necessary in building employees in their areas of strength and  beyond their expertise.


I find new learning very interesting; especially one that leads to evolution.

The rate of human evolution that sums up for the successes and failure of various relationships, takes its root in empathy (or the lack thereof).

In every relationship, strive for empathy, not sympathy.Click To TweetIn every form of relationship, strive for empathy, not sympathy. The difference in both concepts, lie in their value.

Now that you finished savoring this article on empathy vs sympathy, it is time to implement what you have learned… or if you feel overwhelmed, you can always reach out to me or drop a comment below.

Good luck.

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