Empathy vs Sympathy

Soo Jin Lee

The term empathy and sympathy are used interchangeably in our culture today.

According to the American dictionary, both words, sympathy and empathy, have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering”. Empathy is commonly confused with sympathy, however, there is an important distinction between the two words. 

Sympathy is a word that describes a feeling of pity and sorrow for another person’s suffering and pain. Sympathy is when you feel bad for the person from afar. It indicates a caring emotion of your acknowledgment of the other person’s pain.

Empathy is a word that was developed to describe a shared emotional experience with another person. Empathy takes an imaginative part of you to place yourself in the shoes of another, and be able to experience the suffering expressed by the other person.

To share another person’s emotional experience takes a lot more work than portraying sympathy, where the other’s emotions stay separate from your own. 

Both sympathy and empathy displays care for the other’s suffering. The major difference between the two is that empathy requires courage for you to access your own pain and share it with the other person’s suffering. 

Social worker and researcher, Brené Brown, distinguish the two as the following: 

“Empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives disconnection.”

It takes vulnerability to express pain to others. You are able to carry the expressed suffering and decide to either take part in the painful experience by accessing our own pain, or to stand apart from the pain. Empathy is a choice that you make when you decide to take part in the suffering. 

Often times, when we hear about another person’s suffering, we are looking to fix the issue at hand and lift their pain away. This is a way of trying to escape our own painful experiences and feelings of helplessness. What people are looking for is just to know that they are not alone. They are looking for a connection.

Empathy is the connection that suffering individuals are searching for. Many times, they received sympathy from their supportive members of the community. This will result in the person feeling more alone and it validates that no one really understands.

We are encountering suffering individuals every day to find a space, where they can be accepted and understood. At 7Chairs, we understand that this is a cry for a genuine connection. This connection starts when you are able to freely share your pain with others that are also accessing their suffering stories. We are ready to meet you wherever you may be in your journey of healing.

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