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Empathy vs. Sympathy: What You Need to Know

You don’t have to be a psych major to be aware of the many idiosyncrasies of the human mind that enable us to interact with others. Particularly within our current polarized political climate—with many pressing human rights issues making their way to the forefront of public awareness—it’s all the more important to be conscious of how we relate to other people and how our responses can promote greater well-being or simply lead to more significant personal interactions.

Though they are not synonymous, empathy and sympathy are two concepts that are frequently confused with each other. The key difference between them is the extent to which we are able—or willing—to put ourselves in another’s shoes. Empathy is far more raw. It requires getting in touch with one’s own emotional experiences and physically feeling the joy or distress of the other person. It’s extremely personal, and empathizing with someone often spurs us to act to help others; if we can truly feel for them and what they’re going through, we want everyone involved to reach an ideal emotional state or simply to feel better.

In addition, empathy has a biological basis. Mirror neurons display increased activity when we observe someone else’s behavior or emotions on display, heightening the impression of sharing physical sensation. Our emotions are linked to this phenomenon as well. One relevant example of this is within the realm of social policy: why do those outside of affected communities invest so much time and energy into advocating on behalf of the marginalized? When things are looking bleak for a certain demographic, open-minded individuals can infer how it would feel if these events were happening to them directly and choose to take action to promote the greater good of those affected. And when we ourselves are hurting, an empathetic response is generally much preferred to a sympathetic one—when someone can get in touch with their own experiences and make it known that they can relate, even simply offering their emotional support can mean a great deal. Empathy allows people to meet each other where they are.

Sympathy, on the other hand, often comes across like an awkward pat on the back during a crisis. It lacks empathy’s most significant emotional component. While you can certainly want the best for another person and hope that their situation will become better, there’s generally no element of personal investment. If you can’t relate, or choose to keep yourself emotionally distant, it can be hard to know how to approach another person in pain. Sympathy is still a valuable concept, and its role in concern for others should not be underestimated, but there is no denying that drawing from your own experiences and projecting yourself into other roles can have a major impact on the extent to which we can relate to others.

Through my personal experience, however, I’ve found that being open with empathy is easier said than done. After undergoing highly emotional situations, the repercussions are something you always carry with you, and at times it can be quite difficult to willingly get in touch with that part of yourself for the sake of others. I’ve often found myself falling into the awkward back-patting of vague expressions of sympathy due to my unwillingness to reopen old wounds. It’s important to know when to prioritize your own well-being as opposed to mentally overextending yourself for another’s benefit; but once you’re more fully aware of the emotionally intimate nature of empathy, it can leave you more open to future interactions and informed as to how to better relate with those around you.