• Jennifer Lariosa

Empathy vs. Sympathy

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? This is a common question and one I pondered on lately since Empathy is our topic this month. Although empathy and sympathy may be grouped together or sometimes interchanged in conversations, they hold different meanings and depth. While researching this topic, I couldn’t help but reflect on my words and actions to see if they fell under empathy or sympathy. My hope is that you allow yourself to reflect without judgement and see where you want to improve on moving forward!

Now let’s deconstruct the difference between empathy and sympathy by starting with Dr. Brene Brown’s intriguing words:

Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. Empathy is I’m feeling with you. Sympathy is I’m feeling for you.

Those few sentences may seem like being sympathetic is a bad skill to have but it’s not at all. We sympathize with people to make them feel better and to offer positivity in certain situations. Some common phrases of sympathy are “everything happens for a reason,” “I’m sorry for your loss,” or “at least you tried”. However, when we only sympathize, we are just feeling sorry for the other person. We are not opening the gates for a deeper connection. Yes, we are showing and reminding that there is light in a dark place, but sympathetic responses rarely make anyone feel better.


Can you guess what makes us feel better when we are faced with adversity?


How do we create connection when a family member, friend, co-worker, or even a stranger is in a dark place?

We try our best to empathize with the other person and the situation they are faced with. Empathy is the ability to understand people’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves.

  1. When we empathize, we are putting ourselves in their shoes. This is when we are seeing through the lens of their perspective to better understand for ourselves.

  2. Instead of judgement, we listen instead. With open ears and heart, we hold space for the other person to speak and knowing there is no judgement coming from us.

  3. Breathe in the present moment and recognize the emotion the other person is feeling. Ask yourself, “Have I felt this emotion before?”

  4. Communicate to the other person if you recognize the emotion. More importantly, if you have never felt the same emotion, be honest. Tell them you haven’t experienced this in your lifetime but that you are here with open ears and heart with no judgement—just be there to listen.

Sometimes, all we need is for someone to sit with us and be vulnerable while they are in a dark place. Sometimes, motivational words or positive phrases is just a band aid that will eventually fall off. But holding space for the other person is something that will stay with them forever. If you were empathetic to another person, you should be so proud of yourself. Empathy is a choice, and it’s a vulnerable one.

Let’s step away from judging, step into other’s perspectives, be open to vulnerability and choose to connect!

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