Sympathy vs. Empathy: The Key Differences & Social Uses

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.

Defining sympathy.

“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”).

Defining empathy.

“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.
Nafeesah Allen, Ph.D.

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.

Source: Sympathy vs. Empathy: The Key Differences & Social Uses | mindbodygreen

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The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

© Shutterstock.com/Monkey Business Images

The study of empathy is an ongoing area of major interest for psychologists and neuroscientists in many fields, with new research appearing regularly. Empathy is a broad concept that refers to the cognitive and emotional reactions of an individual to the observed experiences of another. Having empathy increases the likelihood of helping others and showing compassion.

“Empathy is a building block of morality—for people to follow the Golden Rule, it helps if they can put themselves in someone else’s shoes,” according to the Greater Good Science Center, a research institute that studies the psychology, sociology, and neuroscience of well-being. “It is also a key ingredient of successful relationships because it helps us understand the perspectives, needs, and intentions of others.”

Though they may seem similar, there is a clear distinction between empathy and sympathy. According to Hodges and Myers in the Encyclopedia of Social Psychology, “Empathy is often defined as understanding another person’s experience by imagining oneself in that other person’s situation:

One understands the other person’s experience as if it were being experienced by the self, but without the self actually experiencing it. A distinction is maintained between self and other. Sympathy, in contrast, involves the experience of being moved by, or responding in tune with, another person.”

Emotional and Cognitive Empathy

Researchers distinguish between two types of empathy. Especially in social psychology, empathy can be categorized as an emotional or cognitive response. Emotional empathy consists of three separate components, Hodges and Myers say. “The first is feeling the same emotion as another person …

The second component, personal distress, refers to one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s plight … The third emotional component, feeling compassion for another person, is the one most frequently associated with the study of empathy in psychology,” they explain.

It is important to note that feelings of distress associated with emotional empathy don’t necessarily mirror the emotions of the other person. Hodges and Myers note that, while empathetic people feel distress when someone falls, they aren’t in the same physical pain. This type of empathy is especially relevant when it comes to discussions of compassionate human behavior. There is a positive correlation between feeling empathic concern and being willing to help others.

“Many of the most noble examples of human behavior, including aiding strangers and stigmatized people, are thought to have empathic roots,” according to Hodges and Myers. Debate remains concerning whether the impulse to help is based in altruism or self-interest. The second type of empathy is cognitive empathy. This refers to how well an individual can perceive and understand the emotions of another.

Cognitive empathy, also known as empathic accuracy, involves “having more complete and accurate knowledge about the contents of another person’s mind, including how the person feels,” Hodges and Myers say. Cognitive empathy is more like a skill: Humans learn to recognize and understand others’ emotional state as a way to process emotions and behavior. While it’s not clear exactly how humans experience empathy, there is a growing body of research on the topic.

How Do We Empathize?

Experts in the field of social neuroscience have developed two theories in an attempt to gain a better understanding of empathy. The first, Simulation Theory, “proposes that empathy is possible because when we see another person experiencing an emotion, we ‘simulate’ or represent that same emotion in ourselves so we can know firsthand what it feels like,” according to Psychology Today.

There is a biological component to this theory as well. Scientists have discovered preliminary evidence of “mirror neurons” that fire when humans observe and experience emotion. There are also “parts of the brain in the medial prefrontal cortex (responsible for higher-level kinds of thought) that show overlap of activation for both self-focused and other-focused thoughts and judgments,” the same article explains.

Some experts believe the other scientific explanation of empathy is in complete opposition to Simulation Theory. It’s Theory of Mind, the ability to “understand what another person is thinking and feeling based on rules for how one should think or feel,” Psychology Today says.

This theory suggests that humans can use cognitive thought processes to explain the mental state of others. By developing theories about human behavior, individuals can predict or explain others’ actions, according to this theory.

While there is no clear consensus, it’s likely that empathy involves multiple processes that incorporate both automatic, emotional responses and learned conceptual reasoning. Depending on context and situation, one or both empathetic responses may be triggered.

Cultivating Empathy

Empathy seems to arise over time as part of human development, and it also has roots in evolution. In fact, “Elementary forms of empathy have been observed in our primate relatives, in dogs, and even in rats,” the Greater Good Science Center says. From a developmental perspective, humans begin exhibiting signs of empathy in social interactions during the second and third years of life.

According to Jean Decety’s article “The Neurodevelopment of Empathy in Humans,” “There is compelling evidence that prosocial behaviors such as altruistic helping emerge early in childhood. Infants as young as 12 months of age begin to comfort victims of distress, and 14- to 18-month-old children display spontaneous, unrewarded helping behaviors.”

While both environmental and genetic influences shape a person’s ability to empathize, we tend to have the same level of empathy throughout our lives, with no age-related decline. According to “Empathy Across the Adult Lifespan: Longitudinal and Experience-Sampling Findings,” “Independent of age, empathy was associated with a positive well-being and interaction profile.” And it’s true that we likely feel empathy due to evolutionary advantage:

“Empathy probably evolved in the context of the parental care that characterizes all mammals. Signaling their state through smiling and crying, human infants urge their caregiver to take action … females who responded to their offspring’s needs out-reproduced those who were cold and distant,” according to the Greater Good Science Center. This may explain gender differences in human empathy.

This suggests we have a natural predisposition to developing empathy. However, social and cultural factors strongly influence where, how, and to whom it is expressed. Empathy is something we develop over time and in relationship to our social environment, finally becoming “such a complex response that it is hard to recognize its origin in simpler responses, such as body mimicry and emotional contagion,” the same source says.

Psychology and Empathy

In the field of psychology, empathy is a central concept. From a mental health perspective, those who have high levels of empathy are more likely to function well in society, reporting “larger social circles and more satisfying relationships,” according to Good Therapy, an online association of mental health professionals. Empathy is vital in building successful interpersonal relationships of all types, in the family unit, workplace, and beyond.

Lack of empathy, therefore, is one indication of conditions like antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.In addition, for mental health professionals such as therapists, having empathy for clients is an important part of successful treatment. “Therapists who are highly empathetic can help people in treatment face past experiences and obtain a greater understanding of both the experience and feelings surrounding it,” Good Therapy explains.

Exploring Empathy

Empathy plays a crucial role in human, social, and psychological interaction during all stages of life. Consequently, the study of empathy is an ongoing area of major interest for psychologists and neuroscientists in many fields, with new research appearing regularly. Lesley University’s online bachelor’s degree in Psychology gives students the opportunity to study the field of human interaction within the broader spectrum of psychology.

Source: The Psychology of Emotional and Cognitive Empathy | Lesley University

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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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Why Social Awareness And Empathy Take Constant Work

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Empathy is a lifelong process.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m an outspoken feminist. But once upon a time, I scratched my head and questioned why we needed feminism. “Shouldn’t we just advocate egalitarianism—equality for everyone?” I asked. I wasn’t fully aware of the multitude of issues specific to women, both overt and internalized, facing me and all women in society (and how feminism benefits men, too).

In another instance, back in high school, I remember using the phrase, “That’s gay,” as a way to say “That’s not cool,” at the dismay and horror of my gay friend. It was a phrase I heard a lot and repeated. At the time, I didn’t think about how it could be hurtful and problematic. My friend calling me out really made me rethink how I chose my words.

Developing social awareness and empathy takes time, effort, intention, and choice. No one is born with the ability to be perfectly informed and sensitive when it comes to the many complex social issues in our world. Being empathetic isn’t always intuitive, as we are so often caught up in our own problems and it can be human nature to be selfish.

It takes energy to extend ourselves to others, to see things from their perspective, and to provide support and solidarity. But once you start to educate yourself and learn about the various issues facing marginalized communities, you start to grow as a human who can positively interact with others—especially those different from yourself.

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Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through. It’s the ability to really put yourself in someone else’s shoes, and to feel what they are feeling. It’s about being respectful and standing in solidarity with marginalized groups, including non-white, non-men, and LGBTQIA communities. You hear them, validate them, and help fight for them. You’re an ally.

As a cisgender straight woman, I’ve never had to deal with discrimination when it comes to my gender identity or choosing who I love. While I’ve never personally dealt with the struggles that face the LGBTQIA community, I can understand the pain and frustration of someone who has been judged by society, their loved ones, and their peers for simply being who they are. I can empathize.

On the other hand, as a woman of color, I’ve experienced discrimination for my identity in other ways. I have been teased, tokenized, and fetishized. I’ve had strangers, especially back in my Midwestern hometown, make assumptions about who I am. A shop owner once told me he was surprised I speak fluent English. I’ve had people ask me where I’m from (expecting me to name some exotic Asian country rather than Ohio). I’ve had dates fetishize me for my race and appearance.

The hardships I’ve dealt with—while certainly traumatic at times—helped shape who I am. They’ve made me a stronger, more outspoken, and more informed person. While I’ve learned to forgive others, especially those who don’t necessarily have bad intentions, I always speak up. If someone makes a problematic comment, I will calmly explain to them why they are wrong or how their words can be offensive. I challenge them to be more open-minded and to reflect on their behaviors and comments.

As I mentioned earlier, we all have to start somewhere when it comes to social awareness and building empathy. I don’t let people off the hook, but I also try to educate rather than shame. Being socially conscious is not about purity, and it shouldn’t be driven by a fear of saying the wrong thing. People mess up. Allies should be allowed to ask questions and openly communicate. On the same token, they should be willing to take constructive criticism and constantly better themselves.

My identity as an Asian-American woman is the fabric of who I am. I appreciate when others are empathetic to my struggles but also validate me as a whole, complex person. In a world that perpetuates stereotypes, it’s imperative that we see people for who they really are, beyond identity and appearance. This takes research, self-educating, reading the works of diverse authors, taking classes, and incorporating the works of marginalized people into your everyday life. It’s a constant work in progress, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

By:

Source: https://gc4women.org

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