The suffix -pathy comes from the Greek word for “suffering,” pathos. The U.S. medical system is built around pathology, which simply means diagnosing suffering and treating disease. Similarly, mental health professionals find social connections critically important to the ways that people cope with and overcome suffering, grief, and trauma. Words like sympathy, empathy, and even apathy describe the nuanced differences between the very complex social connections and reactions humans display when we are suffering or when we witness others in pain.
While subtle behavioral differences might seem obvious to therapists, counselors, and psychologists, it’s not so easy for everyone else. So we spoke to Atlanta-based therapist Habiba Zaman, LPC, NCC, Pepperdine University professor of psychology Steven M. Sultanoff, Ph.D., and licensed clinical psychologist Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D., about simple ways to define sympathy and empathy—and their relationship to compassion.
“Sympathy is when you understand someone else’s suffering and feel sorrow or pity for the experience they are facing,” Zaman explains. “It involves having a value judgment on someone else’s experience.”
While often well intentioned, this value-judgment-centered response often creates a palpable distance between the person in pain and the person who is listening. So, Zaman says, sympathy is often extended when a person doesn’t necessarily relate to, fully comprehend, or appreciate the circumstances of suffering facing someone they know or love.
“The emotion of sympathy is my experience of (reaction to) your situation. Sympathy lacks understanding,” Sultanoff adds. “When you are sympathetic, you get caught up in your own emotional reaction to how you are experiencing the world. This, for the most part, does not demonstrate any understanding of the person in distress.”
He notes that sympathy can create a barrier to understanding that can be activated because a sympathetic person may shift focus away from the person in distress to focus on themselves instead. Sympathy is the emotional reaction of the listener, who might say things like “I feel so sorry that this is happening to you,” or “I get so angry just listening to your story.” Other common ways it can show up are as pity (e.g., “I feel so bad for you”) or even as envy (e.g., “I’m sorry for your loss, but I sure wish I had as much time with my loved ones as you did”).
“When one expresses empathy, one draws upon personal experience, in relating to another person in the midst of a similar experience or hardship,” Thiessen explains. “An example of an empathetic statement might be, ‘I also have recently lost a loved one and know what it feels like to experience that deep sense of sorrow and grief.”
He says that this sense of commonality is a key differentiator between empathy and sympathy.
“Empathy is the ability to feel intimately and see the other person’s perspective. It is not just to understand what they are going through but rather, being able to walk in the other person’s shoes,” Zaman explains. “It is being able to say, ‘I am here to feel with you’ and let you know you are not alone.”
She adds that empathy is best defined by how the listener connects with the person in pain. Without judgment, an empathetic person would try to create and hold space for a person’s feelings and experiences. Empathy, which can be taught and honed over time, involves honoring how a person in pain sees their own situation, even if that is not how others might view it.
Understanding the key differences.
When it comes to understanding the key differences between empathy and sympathy, there are both internal and external factors to keep in mind. Sympathy and empathy are largely distinguished by external behavioral and performative aspects, which most people believe are a reflection of how the listener internally feels about the person who is suffering. Instead, the experts say that the difference is more about the relationship between the listener and the sufferer.
On the outside, sympathy often appears socially distant, like a one-off message of condolences, with no follow-up. Zaman says this is because sympathy lacks intimacy, but there may be situational reasons why that might be the case. In certain corporate settings or power structures, it might be appropriate to emotionally withhold to maintain decorum or to preserve group dynamics that extend beyond just the listener and the person in pain. Social dynamics and the appropriateness of displaying curiosity toward a person in pain might make a listener moderate their naturally emotive behavior.
“Sympathy is used in social situations where there isn’t an intimate connection between two people. It would be perfectly appropriate in a corporate environment to experience sympathy from coworkers or a boss. A card or flowers that share in acknowledging grief is perfectly acceptable and is expected in those environments because anything more could be perceived as inauthentic, unless that initial and genuine connection is there,” Zaman says.
Meanwhile, she says, that very same gesture of sending a card and flowers might be wholly inadequate for lifelong friends. Thus, the relationship and social context between the people involved is very important.
Also, no matter how close or distant the relationship, Sultanoff says that empathy is an internal experience of feeling caring, concern, and understanding toward another human being or living creature that is best shown through active and reflective listening.
“Responding by repeating back (but not parroting) what you heard from the other person, while especially attending to their feelings, demonstrates focus on the person and letting go of your own internal distractions,” he says.
In an attempt to be empathetic, a person who genuinely wants to help might share problem-solving advice, but Sultanoff says that this behavior does not necessarily show empathy for the other person’s immediate emotional state. In many ways, the difference between sympathy and empathy is the desire to understand the experience of a person who is suffering, not necessarily the drive to stop their suffering.
What about compassion?
“Both empathy and sympathy, when coming from a place of sincerity, are sensations and open expressions of compassion,” Thiessen says. After all, compassion, which simply means “to suffer together,” is an expression of caring and warmth.
He says that compassion from empathy typically comes from sharing similar experiences with another person, but compassion from sympathy can be just as useful. “For example, the act of researching the types of suffering experienced by an abused child might increase a person’s sympathy for abused children, regardless of whether or not the researching party had ever been a victim of child abuse,” offers Thiessen.
And this ability to extend emotions beyond one’s own personal experience is good because compassion allows humans to be motivated to alleviate harms they, personally, have never experienced.
“Expressions of compassion, be they in the form of empathy, or sympathy, or some palpable act of kindness, can be experienced as a healing balm on the psyche and the soul,” Thiessen says.
Moreover, that emotional inspiration can spark activism, philanthropy, or public advocacy in the service of moral causes that are far-reaching and socially impactful. In this way, actively cultivating compassion can allow an observer in one situation to be a force for change in many others.
The bottom line.
In the simplest of terms, empathy is an internal emotion that is directed outward toward another person, Sultanoff says. It demonstrates a true understanding of the other person, without any personal biases interfering with that understanding. Sympathy, however, is internally directed.
If you are watching someone in mourning or grief, empathy is focused on understanding the person in pain, while sympathy is focused on your reaction to watching that person deal with their pain. “From a mental health perspective, empathy is very healing, and sympathy is not,” Sultanoff says.
“Generally, it feels better to be the recipient of empathy than simply sympathy, because it allows for a point of connection and intimacy. Also, an expression of sympathy may be more difficult to trust unless it is coming from a genuine relationship and a place of genuine concern,” Thiessen summarizes.
All that said, both feelings can serve socially positivity purposes when tied with compassion and action.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D., is an American writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in migration, literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She completed her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She completed a postgraduate diploma in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi, India. She completed a Masters of International Affairs at Columbia University in 2009 and graduated cum laude from Barnard College at Columbia University in 2006.
Originally from New Jersey, she has lived in Spain, India, Mozambique, Angola, and South Africa. She speaks four languages (reads in three), but primarily publishes in English. Her writing placements range from popular trade magazines like Better Home & Gardens, Real Simple, and Whetstone to academic journals like Harvard’s Transition Magazine, the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy, and the Oxford Monitor.
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