Empathy Vs. Sympathy: How To Connect The Right Way

Providing comfort and building an emotional connection with someone who is struggling can be difficult. There are two main ways to approach a situation like this, either with sympathy or empathy.

Having sympathy for someone means you feel sorry for them and their predicament. On the other hand, empathy involves putting yourself in their shoes and understanding why they feel a certain way.

Though both approaches may be well-meaning, empathy is generally considered to be the better option when approaching someone who is going through a rough time.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to acknowledge and share the feelings of another person about what they are going through.

“The goal of empathy is to not fix the problem, it is to let the person know they are not alone,” says Nicole Hollingshead, PhD, a psychologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

When comforting an individual, someone who is being empathetic may say the following:

  • “That must have been painful for you. I’m sorry you were put in that position.”
  • “It’s normal for you to feel that way, I know you’ve put in so much time and effort on this.”
  • “I get what you mean, it must be so frustrating to deal with that again.”

Empathy tends to be positively related to prosocial or altruistic behavior, which describes actions that are intended to benefit other people or society as a whole. A small 2019 study found that empathy predicts the willingness to make a charitable donation. A 2021 study also suggested that empathy is a vital motivator in helping other people.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is the feeling of pity toward the misfortune of another person and treating their suffering as something to be solved.

A person who is being sympathetic might say the following to someone who is going through a rough time:

  • “I’m sorry to hear about what happened. You should just move on and find someone better.”
  • “Don’t worry, I’m sure things will work out eventually.”
  • “That’s really sad, but at least you still have another pet.”

Sympathetic statements can minimize a person’s feelings and may make them feel like they should hide their pain and suffering.

“Although a sympathetic phrase may be well-meaning, in trying to alleviate another person’s suffering, we are implicitly telling them to ‘hurry up’ with their pain or to ‘get over it,'” says Hollingshead.

Empathy vs. sympathy

When it comes to consoling someone who is in pain and trying to connect with them, empathy is a better approach than sympathy.

“Empathy is the ability to understand and to be able to share someone’s feelings, while sympathy is more so feeling sorry for a person’s misfortune,” says Latasha Perkins, MD, a family physician at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

It’s important to understand the differences between empathy and sympathy, which include:

Sympathy

Empathy

Sympathy tries to alleviate suffering or grief by looking at the “silver lining” of situations, which may invalidate an individual’s feelings.

Empathy acknowledges the challenging situation without trying to fix the problem and validates the person’s feelings.

Having sympathy is feeling concerned for someone without taking the time to acknowledge their pain or struggle, which does not allow for an emotional connection, says Hollingshead.

Having empathy is more reflective, attempting to understand the experience, feelings, and perspective of another person to build a connection with them, says Hollingshead.

Sympathy is more of a pity-based response to the situation of another person.

Empathy involves emotional resonance with another person’s feelings and situation.

Several small studies that used non-self-report measures found that females are generally more empathetic than males. The study method is important because a 2022 study suggested that gender differences in self-reported empathic capacity may be influenced by traditional gender role expectations, with empathy being generally perceived as a feminine trait.

“It’s extremely important that we offer people the space and time to go through their process and to avoid projection by expressing how you’d handle it or how you think it should go,” says Perkins. “Show as much love and care as allowed. Offer space but be consistent with checking in.”

Insider’s takeaway

Although sympathy and empathy are related, they are two distinct approaches that convey different intentions.

Empathy forges a connection by understanding the emotions of another individual, while sympathy is more detached, zeroing in on the sorrow over their plight.

“The most important thing to remember when trying to approach someone going through a rough time is that everyone has their own process,” says Perkins. “Respect and honor that process.”

Carla M Delgado Icon

 

By:

Carla is a Filipino freelance health & culture journalist with bylines in Insider, Architectural Digest, Elemental, Observer, and Mental Floss. Outside of writing, she works for local theatre productions as a stage manager and assistant sound operator.

This article was medically reviewed by Dr. Sara Twogood, Obstetrician-Gynecologist & Flo Medical Expert.

Source: Empathy Vs. Sympathy: How to Connect the Right Way

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More contents:

Feeling bad for someone is not the same as empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of someone else without feeling the emotions. Sympathy is the physical display of empathy. You hug them, you try to put yourself in their shoes.
Psychopaths have empathy but they don’t have sympathy. Altruism is detached and emotionless, based on doing what is right. Which ones do you relate to? Does this video help clarify the difference between empathy, sympathy and altruism? Get our merch: ➳ “I Am My Own Super Hero” – https://goo.gl/TVnNd4 ➳ “I Will Get Through This” – https://goo.gl/xHzRAi ➳ “My Mind Is Powerful” – https://goo.gl/BVjjEY
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