Empathy vs. Sympathy: What Is the Difference?
And Why You Should Care
By Robert Longley
Victims of Hurricane Katrina Console Each Other.
(Image: © Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Is that “empathy” or “sympathy” you're showing? While the two words are often incorrectly used interchangeably, the difference in their emotional impact is important. Empathy, as the ability to actually feel what another person is feeling — literally “walk a mile in their shoes” — goes beyond sympathy, a simple expression of concern for another person’s misfortune. Taken to extremes, deep or extended feelings of empathy can actually be harmful to one’s emotional health.
Sympathy is a feeling and expression of concern for someone, often accompanied by a wish for them to be happier or better off. “Oh dear, I hope the chemo helps.” In general, sympathy implies a deeper, more personal, level of concern than pity, a simple expression of sorrow.
However, unlike empathy, sympathy does not imply that one’s feelings for another are based on shared experiences or emotions.
As a translation into English of the German word Einfühlung — “feeling into” — made by psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909, “empathy” is the ability to recognize and share another person’s emotions.
Empathy requires the ability to recognize the suffering of another person from their point of view and to openly share their emotions, including painful distress.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy, pity and compassion, which are merely recognition of another person’s distress. Pity typically implies that the suffering person does not “deserve” what has happened to him or her and is powerless to do anything about it. Pity shows a lower degree of understanding and engagement with the suffering person’s situation than empathy, sympathy, or compassion.
Compassion is a deeper level of empathy, demonstrating an actual desire to help the suffering person.
Since it requires shared experiences, people can generally feel empathy only for other people, not for animals. While people may be able to sympathize with a horse, for example, they cannot truly empathize with it.
The Three Types of Empathy
According to psychologist and pioneer in the field of emotions, Paul Ekman, Ph.D., three distinct types of empathy have been identified:
Cognitive Empathy: Also called “perspective taking,” cognitive empathy is the ability to understand and predict the feelings and thoughts of other by imagining one’s self in their situation.
Emotional Empathy: Closely related to cognitive empathy, emotional empathy is the ability to actually feel what another person feels or at least feel emotions similar to theirs. In emotional empathy, there is always some level of shared feelings. Emotional empathy can be a trait among persons diagnosed with Asperger syndrome.
Compassionate Empathy: Driven by their deep understanding of the other person’s feelings based on shared experiences, compassionately empathic people make actual efforts to help.
While it can give meaning to our lives, Dr. Ekman warns that empathy can also go terribly wrong.
The Dangers of Empathy
Empathy can give purpose to our lives and truly comfort people in distress, but it can also do great harm. While showing an empathetic response to the tragedy and trauma of others can be helpful, it can also, if misdirected, turn us into what Professor James Dawes has called “emotional parasites.”
Empathy Can Lead to Misplaced Anger
Empathy can make people angry — perhaps dangerously so — if they mistakenly perceive that another person is threatening a person they care for.
For example, while at a public gathering, you notice a heavyset, casually dressed man who you think is “staring” at your pre-teenage daughter. While the man has remained expressionless and has not moved from his spot, your empathetic understanding of what he “might” be thinking of doing to your daughter drives you into a state of rage.
While there was nothing in the man’s expression or body language that should have lead you to believe he intended to harm your daughter, your empathetic understanding what was probably “going on inside his head” took you there.
Danish family therapist Jesper Juul has referred to empathy and aggression as “existential twins.”
8Empathy Can Drain Your Wallet*
For years, psychologists have reported cases of overly empathetic patients endangering the well-being of themselves and their families by giving away their life savings to random needy individuals. Such overly empathetic people who feel they are somehow responsible for the distress of others have developed an empathy-based guilt.
The better-known condition of “survivor guilt” is a form of empathy-based guilt in which an empathic person incorrectly feels that his or her own happiness has come at the cost or may have even caused another person’s misery.
According to psychologist Lynn O’Connor, persons who regularly act out of empathy-based guilt, or “pathological altruism,” tend to develop mild depression in later-life.
Empathy Can Harm Relationships
Psychologists warn that empathy should never be confused with love. While love can make any relationship — good or bad — better, empathy cannot and can even hasten the end of a strained relationship. Essentially, love can cure, empathy cannot.
As an example of how even well-intentioned empathy can damage a relationship, consider this scene from the animated comedy television series The Simpsons: Bart, bemoaning the failing grades on his report card, says, “This is the worst semester of my life.” His dad, Homer, based on his own school experience, tries to comfort his son by telling him, “Your worst semester so far.”
Empathy Can Lead to Fatigue
Rehabilitation and trauma counselor Mark Stebnicki coined the term “empathy fatigue” to refer to a state of physical exhaustion resulting from repeated or prolonged personal involvement in the chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief, and loss of others.
While more common among mental health counselors, any overly empathetic person can experience empathy fatigue. According to Stebnicki, “high touch” professionals like doctors, nurses, lawyers, and teachers tend to suffer from empathy fatigue.
Paul Bloom, Ph.D., professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, goes so far as to suggest that due to its inherent dangers, people need less empathy rather than more.