Sympathy-Empathy Distinction

Sympathy is your understanding of a person’s experience.

Empathy is understanding a person’s experience.

This is why empathy is considered a more revered trait. Empathy is more profound. Apathy is less likely to coincide with empathy than sympathy, as empathy innately requires more action than sympathy. It’s similar to the phenomenon where someone responds to another’s distress with words, such as, “So sorry to hear!” or “I’m thinking of you”. Here, sympathy stops short where empathy would continue with encouragement, advice, or an offer to help. Sympathy retains action to the bearer’s mind. Empathy cannot be retained as doing for another feels likewise to doing for the self. Regardless, both sound like selfish feelings and reasons to act, but it’s notable empathy tends to be more prosocial, doing greater good than sympathy ever could.

Supplemental Read: Theory of Mind

7 Comments

  1. Hmmm… would you say then… having a big imagination is a good thing? In empathy we can only imagine what the other is experiencing. Right? We put ourselves in their shoes.

    Would you say that sympathy leads to empathy? That is to say… the more one reflects on those feelings for the other, the more one imagines themselves in that position and is then likely to empathize.

    Don’t mind me! I’m experiencing some stuff personally and this is hitting me right in the… something. Lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Creativity, and so imagination, helps, but the main thing is having compassion coupled with insight. To be sympathetic for someone is like empathy but without the details. Sympathy is compassion without insight. When you gain insight (which in this case is learning about how someone lives, thinks, aspires, etc.) you get the details you need to make your sympathy informed enough to become empathy; and, yes, here is where imagination is the clincher, as you are sympathizing wisely enough to imagine being that person, and so more likely to understand them from their perspective and so be able to apply compassion to assist or comfort them appropriate to him or her, rather than you.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting distinction but I’m not sure we can ever be entirely empathetic because our understanding of another person’s condition is probably always going thru our personal filters. Even with “revealed” knowledge of another’s state… it could still come to us in a way suitable for us.

    So perhaps we’re looking at a continuum rather than a distinction?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The distinction part is meant in a semantic sense. I agree it is as you say, we’re sympathizing and empathizing on a continuum rather than a distinct either-or state.

      Like

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