People tend to talk about empathy and sympathy interchangeably. However, while similar, they actually aren’t the same thing. If this is new news to you or the differences aren’t clear to you, we’ll clear it up! It’s only human to respond to and support someone who confides in us while suffering or distressed. Sometimes it’s unclear what we should say or do to help them in that very moment. Here’s the difference between sympathy and empathy.


Sympathy is when we feel for someone or a situation this person is going through. By feeling for someone or their situation, we’re saying we understand it. Sympathy develops with age and maturity. It also doesn’t require a sense of connection or emotional knowledge, it’s more based on mental representation. Someone’s experience could be completely foreign to you, but yet you could see their struggle.


Empathy is when we feel with someone – literally. We see this when a newborn baby cries in the hospital and it triggers the rest to cry. An study using MRIs showed that part of the brain connected to people feeling physical pain were activated when participants were shown photographs of physically painful experiences with hands and feet. None of these photos showed faces either. Another study has shown that physical and emotional pain actually use the same neural circuitry. Empathy is an innate capacity, however, it may not be fully developed in everyone. For example narcissists lack empathy entirely.


Here are some examples of things we say that seem empathetic but actually aren’t:


“I know exactly what you are feeling. I’ve been there, done that.”

One key rule to remember, if the first words out of your mouth begin with “I,” then you’re not being empathetic because you’re making it about you. You’re intentions may come from the right place, but it’s marginalizing the uniqueness of someone’s experience.


“It could always be worse.”

Even though you want to open someone’s perspective, it’s not an effective time to do so. What you’re doing is telling someone who’s in pain that what their feeling isn’t that bad. It doesn’t matter to them in the moment because pain is pain. Just listen.


“Try to stay positive. Maybe it was meant to be.”

Again, this may seem uplifting and a way to open someone’s perspective, but doesn’t work. People need the time to process the emotions that come with tough times. At some point, on their own, they will see that perspective. But in the moment, their pain is their present reality.


“Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”

There’s no way anyone can set a time limit or scheduler on someone’s pain. The person suffering is the only one who can decide when they’re ready to move on or not. This is their process. You just listen and be there along the way. It’s not wallowing or choosing to suffer, it’s a healing process.


If you or someone you know needs to feel empathy but isn’t getting it from their support support system, please contact Crownview Medical Group to connect with a medical professional who can provide advice and empathize.