The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

happy grandparents with granddaughter, talking about empathy

There is a rather large difference between the concepts of empathy and sympathy with the latter being a rather well-known word and value that people use. While they may appear very similar, they have a very distinct meaning and usage. September is National Suicide Awareness and Prevention Month. Let’s explore the value in empathy when discussing suicide prevention and awareness.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines sympathy as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.” While this is a noble gesture and can somewhat generate a feeling of support with expressions of sympathy, empathy is a much more effective way to connect with those going through significant emotional pain.

Empathy is defined as “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions” or “the ability to share someone else’s feelings”. Feeling sorry for a person automatically generates feelings of pity, which is not helpful in situations where people are in pain. Empathy becomes the bridge that connects two people together and creates a space for more genuine healing, understanding and compassion. By working on our empathy, it allows us to hear others point of view and spring us forward into automatically becoming more helpful.

How does empathy relate to suicide prevention?

According to National Institute of Mental Health, suicide rates have steadily increased in the United States from the year 2000-2016. By demonstrating empathy in how we relate with one another, this is just another strategy that we can incorporate into our suicide prevention plans.

This is a two sided approach. By having empathy for other humans, this promotes a feeling of emotional connection between individuals, groups, families and communities. Having a vested interest in the people around you creates a sense of safety. Both children and adults require secure attachments to others around them in order to thrive. Utilizing a more empathic approach will clients and others around you, will decrease the arguments and distress that are created from disconnection. This becomes a natural protective factor for our loved ones.

Demonstrating empathy to individuals who are at risk of suicide, can likely reduce the risk of suicide completion. Instead of using sympathy in this situation, practicing empathy can promote more positive outcomes. Talk of suicide should never be dismissed. If you, or someone you know, is thinking of suicide call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

According to Chloe Chong, a social media expert, there are seven key differences between empathy and sympathy. Empathy requires active listening. Sympathy requires giving unasked advice or being told what to do. Empathy is more effective in this regard since most of the time, people just want to be heard. Sympathy states “I know how you feel”. Empathy states “I feel how you feel”. In this case, having empathy is being more aware of the other person’s feelings, not your own.

Sympathy often involves a lot of judgement. Empathy has none. Sympathy involves understanding from your own perspective. Empathy involves putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and understanding WHY they may have these particular feelings. In becoming aware of the root cause of why a person feels the way they do, we can better understand and provide healthier options.

Sympathy’s favorite expression is “poor you”. It creates a sense of pity over the plight of the person. Empathy’s favorite expression is “I can understand how it feels. It must be really hard”. This helps a person to feel heard, understood and validated. Sympathy focuses on the surface meaning of statements, while empathy is sensitive to non-verbal cues. Having an awareness of people’s true meanings is helpful is maintaining that connection.

Lastly, sympathy tends to suppress your own and others emotions. Emotions get pushed aside and avoided until it culminates in an intense fit of pain. Empathy acknowledged your own and others emotions.

By self-checking your own empathy to others pain, we can slowly start to rebuild the connections that we have lost with others, and make current connections even stronger. Being supportive, understanding and compassionate are the building blocks to preventative care of all individuals, both young and older.