Sympathy vs. Empathy

From Elaina: I ran into a friend the other day at the store. She was telling me that a coworker of hers, with very young kids, was diagnosed Stage 3 with an aggressive type of breast cancer. My friend was doing everything she could to help her coworker both at work and at home. My friend was letting all of this affect her work and home life. Finally, my friend had to stop herself and remember that she, personally, was not facing this illness.

I have done this so many times in my life. Even as a child, I would viscerally feel whatever drama my friends had. I absolutely do this with my kids. We have a deal where they need to tell me when they’re okay so I know I can be okay as well. I’ve always been a bit too empathetic.

So, what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? In my eyes, empathy is feeling what another person is feeling. Feeling it to the level that it is hard to distinguish if the emotion is actually happening to you. Sympathy is honoring the other person’s emotion without actually feeling it yourself. Empathy has you sharing the problem. It is putting yourself into the situation with the other person. Sometimes, it can take away from the other person. You are not allowing them to solve their own problem. You are, in some ways, diminishing what they are feeling when you take it on yourself. We feel the need to step in and fix the issue because we are in pain, too. Sympathy allows us to be in the present moment with our friends and family. Be there when they need to share, but also walk away and have our own life. It shows trust that the other person is capable of handling their life. It allows us to hold the space for our friends.

On getmorehappy, Lisa and I talk a lot about the need to take care of ourselves. We talk about filling our own bucket so that we have enough to give to others. Hopefully, I can take my own advice and be more sympathetic. To live my life with grace and trust that others can decide to do the same.

2 thoughts on “Sympathy vs. Empathy

  1. Very good distinctions! Too much empathy can keep us from being there for the other person because we become too emotional. Almost as if the nurse gets sick WITH you instead of caring FOR you.


    1. I love that analogy! You are absolutely right. How funny that it makes sense when we are talking about physical health and yet hard when we talk about emotions.


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