Life isn’t always easy. Part of growth is going through difficult situations and events and coming out on the other end. And sometimes, it can be harder to watch this growth than to experience it on your own. Whether you are watching a friend or family member suffer or experiencing hardship yourself, it’s important to remember that people process things differently and to go easy on yourself.
Is someone you care about hurting? It’s one thing to feel bad for someone. It’s a whole other thing to be empathetic. While many believe sympathy and empathy are the same things, there’s more to it than that. If you’ve ever wondered about the difference between empathy and sympathy, read on.
Help with Empathy and Sympathy
Before getting too deep into the differences between empathetic and sympathetic processing, be aware that there are therapists out there for everyone. They can help you whether you consider yourself an empath — someone who takes on others’ emotions — or just a concerned friend or family member. Therapists and other psychology professionals are trained to help you identify your emotional processes and those of the people around you. This knowledge will go a long way if you struggle with the differences and how they may impact you.
What’s the difference?
To be empathetic and sympathetic are not the same thing. Empathy means that you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes and have compassion for what they might be going through. It involves being able to picture yourself in that same situation as another person and how you might react. Sympathy, on the other hand, has a little more distance. To be sympathetic is to realize that someone is going through something or suffering somehow but not necessarily able to relate on a first-hand level.
When we are sympathetic, we are able to notice facial expressions, sadness, and might even be able to sense a person’s emotions. We do what we can to offer our condolences for whatever they might be going through and often use word sympathy to help them feel heard and understood, something every human being needs.
To be empathetic takes sympathy steps further. With empathy, we are not only taking on the perspective of others but are able to relate even more directly to the experience of another person. Empaths, or people who can directly feel others’ emotional responses to pain and suffering, are great at putting themselves in other people’s situations and helping them to work through negative emotions. To show empathic concern is a cognitive way of communicating that goes a long way in helping people in pain.
Is one better than the other?
While it is great to be or know an empathetic person, some dangers come along with emotional empathy. For a truly empathetic person, they experience emotions along with the person who is suffering. It is not like watching a fictional character in a book or movie suffer. To an empath, it is natural to take on the direct emotional state or emotions of others.
While it is easier to be sympathetic and take a trip to the pharmacy for a sympathy card, those who are not capable of true empathy or have less empathy for others are also less likely to have a hard time watching people they care about suffer. That is, there are pros and cons to being either empathetic or sympathetic.
For many empaths, there are moral reasons they avoid social situations. Because of their empathic accuracy, many adopt traits of less than prosocial behavior. That is, empaths may begin to isolate just so that they don’t have to take on the pain of family members. If you are an empath, it is important to set boundaries in this area so that you can live your own life too.
Content and Processing Differences
To better understand the difference between empathy and sympathy, let’s look at the specific context, content, and process of how an empath versus sympathetic person would handle a situation involving prejudice. The difference in this perspective-taking is exactly what psychologists use to distinguish the two ways of relating to others.
Let’s say an empathic person saw another person of a different race or sexual identity being discriminated against. Let’s assume that they found this social behavior unacceptable (more likely than not in that empaths can put themselves in others’ shoes) and wanted to do something to show support for the person suffering. The empath would do more than express sorrow for what that person was going through. In the same way that a sympathetic person might notice the marginalized person’s sad affect, the empathic person would do the same but take it a step further. They would imagine what it would be like to be in that other person’s shoes.
Questions for an empath might be how they would handle being discriminated against, how they would want to be treated, and what they could do to support that person. The empathetic person would go home that night and be unable to sleep or bothered until the situation was resolved. Signs of empathy might include rumination over the situation and how to publicly align with the person being hurt. They would be careful with things like tone of voice and how they approached the person they were worried about. Highly concerned about not making things worse, empathetic people would naturally pay closer attention to facial expressions, body language, and other sensations like energy and adjust their ways of communicating accordingly.
A sympathetic person would be more inclined to find a different way of handling the situation. They might consider picking up a gift basket on the way to work as a gesture of support or act of altruism. They could even take a public position against those types of social behaviors but would not later find themselves imagining what life might be like for their co-worker.
How do I know which one I am?
It’s easy to tell if you are a sympathetic or empathetic person. If you are someone who fantasizes about what it would be like to be in other people’s shoes frequently, you are probably empathetic. Other traits of an empath include being very sensitive, feeling emotional in large crowds, being the person others often go to for advice or a listening ear, feeling the energy or “vibe” in a room, the ability to pick up on subtle gestures most people might miss, an overattachment to pets or babies, being highly impacted by watching bad things on the news or in movies and feeling overwhelmed in romantic relationships.
Non-empaths don’t generally get disturbed by tragic events in the same way empaths do. For example, in times of major tragedy, while a sympathetic person would get sad or “feel bad” for victims, it likely won’t disrupt their lives or functioning. This type of person would be more likely to give to a charity or donate to a fundraising event to help solve the problem and be less inclined to have it emotionally cripple them.
You are likely sympathetic and not an empath if you can attend an acquaintance’s funeral and return to work the next day obsessing over how the family is doing. An empath would find themself overwhelmed with concern and picturing how they would react if it were their loved one for weeks after attending a wake or funeral.
What does it all mean?
While neither is better or worse, research shows that empathy is a more complex way of thinking than sympathy because it takes sympathy a step further. Neuroscientists have studied the cingulate cortex and other parts of the brain to understand better real people’s ways of processing things. And they do warn that taking on others’ experiences could get to you.
If you find yourself up all night worried about other people’s problems, ruminating on what you would or would not do in their situation, or experiencing anxiety, it might be time to contact a therapist. Even if it’s just to have someone to listen to you, it’s good to take care of yourself too. Therapists and licensed psychology professionals are trained to offer both empathetic and sympathetic ears. If you think you’re an empath and are reading this worried about them, don’t be. Psychologists spend years in school learning how to be sympathetic and empathetic without the unhealthy worry that comes with caring about other people’s problems. This is where they could be useful to you.
Suppose you are someone who spends too much time feeling sorry for or even taking pity on people in your life and it is impacting your behaviors and happiness. In that case, therapists can help in teaching you techniques that will allow you to be both sympathetic and empathetic in healthy ways. From gestures to the ability to put it away, there is a happy balance between both feelings styles that could work for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you think you need help navigating how you experience sympathy and empathy alike.