Empathy and Sympathy Are Not The Same – And It Matters

When you feel for someone’s suffering, do you feel empathy or sympathy? And surely both are good? Scholar, author and presenter, Brene Brown, says they have a very different effect on the person we want to help.

“Empathy fuels connection while sympathy drives disconnection,” says Brown.

“Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy, I’m feeling for you.”

Brene Brown first talked about empathy and sympathy in her hugely popular video, ‘The Power of Vulnerability.’ She has since written more about them in her new book, Atlas of the Heart.

In ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ video, she says: “I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, ‘I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed.’ And then we look and we say. ‘Hey, I’m coming down. I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone.’

“Sympathy is, ‘Oh, it’s bad, uh-huh. Do you want a sandwich?’”

What is empathy?

She says empathy is the ability to understand and echo what someone else feels. It’s like being with someone in their hard times, side by side with them. You can understand their pain, you can communicate that you understand and that you are there for them.

You understand and accept the other person’s feelings, even if they might not be the same feelings you’d have in their place.

Brown says empathy is a choice, and is often a hard choice. To feel empathy, we have to tap into our own difficult feelings such as vulnerability, frustration and failure. We have to feel these again, and communicate them to the other person. She adds that compassion is empathy plus action: It’s the practice of relating to others and, as a result, acting to ease their suffering.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy, says Brown, draws a clear line between the person suffering and ourselves. It’s feeling bad for someone, but being unable (or unwilling) to relate to that person.

She adds that pity is sympathy with a sense of hierarchy: We don’t just feel bad for the person suffering, we feel like they are somehow “less than” we are. It’s less active than compassion – we don’t feel obligated to help people we pity.

Sympathy often involves the words “at least”. We try to find the silver lining for the other person.

Brown gives the example:

“I think my marriage is falling apart” – “At least you have a marriage.”

“John’s getting kicked out of school” – “At least Sarah is an A student.”

How to do empathy

Brown gives four qualities of empathy. Use these as steps to be more empathetic and less sympathetic to people who are struggling.

1. Take perspective: understand their perspective, even if it’s not how you would see it or how you would feel in the same situation.

2. Stay out of judgement: “not easy when you enjoy it as much as many of us do,” says Brown.

3. Recognise emotion in other people: again, even if you feel differently.

4. Communicate the fact that you understand and you are there for them without judgement.