Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy versus sympathy

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Oftentimes, people use empathy and sympathy interchangeably. This may not seem like a big deal, but the two words have very different meanings.


What They Really Mean…

Sympathy - feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune

Empathy - the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Do you see the difference?


Sympathy is looking down at someone and saying “Too bad for them, I’m glad I’m not there,” while empathy is meeting with someone and saying, “Wow, that’s really difficult, I’ve been there before.”

No one talks about empathy better than Brené Brown. In her short talk she quotes:

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Also in her talk, Brené Brown highlights the four qualities of empathy, as developed by Theresa Wiseman.

These qualities are:

1. Perspective taking
2. Staying out of judgement
3. Recognizing emotion in other people
4. Communicating connection with other people


Empathy isn’t always easy, it does require some work on our parts. That is because to truly show empathy, we have to be willing to be a bit vulnerable and open ourselves enough to connect with how that person is feeling based on times we have felt that way.

Is it always comfortable? Absolutely not.

But without empathy, true connection is difficult and our relationships can suffer.

Avoid the Trap

A lot of us like to help, so when we see someone feeling down or going through a tough time, our first instinct is to try to fix. But how many times can we actually fix whatever is wrong? Almost never.

Responses don’t make things better, connections do.
— Brené Brown

Isn’t that true? Think about the times you’ve been in a dark place. Did your friend saying “I know how you’re feeling and I’m here for you” change anything about the situation? Unless they have superpowers, probably not. But, what that statement did do is help you know that you’re not alone and that you have support, even during the hardest of times.

If you have an extra two minutes, we strongly encourage you to check out Brené Brown’s video on Empathy:


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Hudson LCSW Group is a Westchester County counseling practice in White Plains, NY. Our team of empathetic clinicians provide therapy for children, teens and adults.