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Empathy Versus Sympathy

August 25th, 2017


A colleague of mine recently suggested I view Dr. Brene’ Brown’s video illustration on the difference between empathy vs. sympathy -- I found it so powerful that I continue to internally refer back to it almost on a daily basis. The video highlights how, many times, people often confuse sympathetic and emphatic responses in an effort to support others, causing well-meaning, but misguided pain. But as Dr. Brown explains, sympathy and empathy are not the same, and are in fact two diametrically opposed terms –empathy breeds connection, while sympathetic responses can house judgement, superiority and disconnection and almost always ends with a qualifier: “but,” or “at least.” We all have an inclination to run from vulnerability and emotional pain and many times we use sympathy as a defense mechanism to protect ourselves from others’ grief, loss or raw emotion. Additionally, we tend to want to “fix” the other person’s emotional struggles by offering advice or suggestions to make them feel better when, in actuality, we are trying to make ourselves feel better about the situation, distancing ourselves from that vulnerability. Empathy on the other hand offers a safe space to allow others to “feel felt,” cared for and understood without judgement or conditions. It means putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, imagining yourself in that particular situation to gain a better understanding of their feeling or emotion. Some examples of sympathetic versus empathetic responses might be: Situation: My boyfriend and I broke up and I am devastated. Sympathetic: I am sorry to hear that, but you will find someone again who is much better for you. Empathetic: I know you must have loved him very much and I can hear this is hard for you. What do you need from me? Situation: I suffered a miscarriage Sympathetic: I am so sorry to hear that, but at least you know you can get pregnant. Empathetic: I am not sure what to say, but am thankful you shared such heartbreaking news with me. To be empathetic, you have to think beyond yourself, and your own emotions, and be really present with the other person’s pain. Some ways to practice empathy, include:


In many instances, we believe we are listening to someone, but are in fact trying to formulate a response or reacting to our own emotions. Being present fully and actively listening to the other person is a great way to practice empathy.


Many times we enter interactions with our own judgements, opinions and biases. Empathy requires us to suspend judgement and try to gain an understanding of that person’s perspective. It doesn’t mean we have to agree, but in fact recognizing the other person, instead of dismissing them.


Acknowledging the other person’s emotions and feelings allows them to “feel felt” and understood.


Instead of assuming the other person wants you to provide advice or try to make them feel better, ask them directly what they need. Many times, their response may include “nothing” or “I don’t know.” If so, respect that and just “be” with them, allowing them the space to be vulnerable and raw. While empathy many not be natural, practicing empathy is an essential life skill that can strengthen relationships and bring positive self-awareness, helping not only build compassion for ourselves, but for those around us.


Erin Swinson, LPC, LMHC Therapist Clarity Clinic


Gobblynne. (2013, December 13). RSA Shorts: Dr Brené Brown, "The Power of Empathy." (Video file). Empathy at Work. Developing Skills to Understand Other People. Retrieved on January, 20, 2016.

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