Empathy vs Sympathy: Learning Perspectives


As humans, a huge way of connecting is the ability to step in someone else’s shoes, so to speak, and to be able to understand one another’s feelings. This may come from having experienced something similar or simply understanding what a friend is going through. With the aid of sympathy and empathy, we can share our emotions with each other. But, when it comes down to it, there are big differences between empathy vs sympathy.


These differences play a role in our relationships, as well as how we teach and learn from one another.



What is Empathy?

According to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, empathy is, “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.”



What is Sympathy?

The same dictionary defines sympathy as, “an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.”



UoPeople offering a helping hand to a friend
Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash



The Differences between Sympathy vs. Empathy

As you can take from the definitions alone, the two words mean different things, but have some overlap.


On one hand, empathy is understanding. This means that you can feel what someone is going through without having experienced the feelings or situation yourself.


On the other hand, sympathy is sharing these feelings with another. “Sym” means “together” or “at the same time.” “Pathos” means “feelings, emotion, or passion.”



Relationship Between Sympathy and Empathy

Although the two words and subsequent feelings have differences, there is a strong connection between the two. This shared connection is compassion. Compassion means that you can understand and accept another person, and this feeling is strengthened with more knowledge of a situation. The real strength of compassion is that it acknowledges the interconnectedness of people and things.


Importantly, compassion also means compassion for oneself so that you have the ability to empathise with another.


As Dr. Brene Brown says, “Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.”



Listening vs. Fixing

Sometimes, people share problems so that they can be heard. They don’t always seek an immediate solution. For some people, it’s hard not to give a fix to a problem. However, empathy requires listening and understanding before jumping in with the solution.



Avoiding the ‘At Least’ Trap

It’s very common for people to try and make other people’s problems about themselves, but empathy calls for support. It’s easy to slip into the trap of saying “Well, at least this didn’t happen to you like it did to me…” and changing the subject back to yourself.


Instead of sympathizing and trying to solve a problem, empathy opens the door to be fully supportive and share that one’s feelings are valid and heard.



The Four Parts of Empathy — Importance in Education

Empathy is a key part of all relationships, from personal to professional to educational. Empathy is particularly important within a classroom to fuel better and more supported learning.


Since everyone has different life experiences, it helps to feel understood when entering a situation or a classroom full of people with many differences.


Empathy in education relies on these four points:



1. Perspective Taking


Try to take the perspective of a student if you are a teacher. Before judging effort, ask yourself if you believe your students are trying their hardest. It’s easy to take things personally as a teacher and allow that to cloud your judgment. By empathizing, you open the door to new perspectives.



2. Removing Judgment


Within classrooms, problems are bound to arise. These issues can stem between students or between a student and a teacher. However, it doesn’t help anyone to judge one another. Instead, leave judgment aside and create a zone of comfort and openness where people feel safe to express their feelings.



3. Understand Students’ Feelings


Like workplaces, school is a place where people from all different cultures and walks of life come together and mix. One of the best ways to make students feel heard is to try and understand their personal situation.



4. Communicating Understanding


Teachers have a lot of experience and wisdom to impart on their students. That’s why it’s easy to fall into the “fix it” trap. Instead of telling students what they “should do,” it’s better to first rephrase their problem in your own words to ensure you really understand their perspective. By restating their issue in your own words, you can help to guide them to a solution without giving a quick fix.



Example of Empathy

One of the easiest ways to distinguish between empathy vs. sympathy is through examples.


The phrase “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes” goes a long way to understand what empathy really entails.


For example, if you’ve never lost someone close to you, but you have a friend who is suffering from loss, you can empathize by imagining what this may feel like for them. Since you can’t bring back the person they lost, the most you can do is express your understanding of their pain and be a support system.



Example of Sympathy

Odds are you’ve been sick before. That means that when you come across a friend or loved one who is sick, too, you can sympathize with their situation because you know what it feels like from your own experience.



Emotional Differences

Both empathy and sympathy are deep feelings. Yet, with empathy, you share a feeling and with sympathy, you express a feeling. In that way, empathy goes deeper than the surface.



Empathy, Sympathy, and Humanity

These feelings are an integral part of what it means to be human. In extreme cases, those who lack sympathy and empathy may be sociopaths or narcissists. It’s not always easy to feel sympathy and empathy, but they make the human experience and our connections deeper.



Girls with arms wrapped around each other
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash



Origin of the Words and History of Usage

The word sympathy has been around longer than empathy. Sympathy appeared in the 16th century, whereas empathy was more newly coined from psychology in 1909 by British psychologist Edward B. Titchener. Empathy stems from the German word “einfühlungsvermögen,” or the concept of shared feeling.


Sympathy stems from the ancient Greek work “sunpathos” which means “with/together” and “suffering.” Eventually the word went through its changes in Late Latin (sympathia) and Middle French (sympathie).



Overview Chart


empathy vs sympathy



The Bottom Line

While empathy and sympathy are different, they both are important feelings and crucial parts of relationships. They allow people to communicate, understand, and share feelings and offer support.


A useful way to remember the differences: E and S go together like this — Empathy is Shared and Sympathy is Expressed.




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