Understanding Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

Empathy SympathyEmpathy and sympathy go to the core of what it means to be human.

We are a social and highly cooperative animal that depends on close bonds within families and communities (Warneken & Tomasello, 2006).

None of this would be possible without empathy and sympathy, so much so that we might barely notice them most of the time, like the proverbial fish who does not know that it is wet.

But when we reflect on these powerful forces in our lives, we might notice the subtle differences between them and consider the differing characteristics and roles of empathy vs. sympathy.

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Uncovering the Roots of Empathy

Scientists believe that our capacity for empathy is closely linked to altruism. When we empathize with others, we are more likely to help them (Batson, 2017).

Back in our evolutionary history, it is thought that empathy first arose to motivate parents to care for their offspring (Goetz et al., 2010) and relatives to care for one another (Hawley, 2015).

Because it might not have been easy to keep track of who was related to whom, our ancestors might have started to use proximity and similarity as a proxy for relatedness. They would have felt empathy for and tried to help whoever was close by.

Finally, evolution might have favored our tendency to feel empathy for and act kindly toward others in our social group, even if they were not related to us. As we moved into living in small communities, it became important to collaborate with one another, whether or not we were related (Swain et al., 2012). And so empathy, which helps to support cooperation, became even more important.

Empathy definition

We have established that empathy has something to do with helping others, but what exactly does it mean? We shall need a precise definition to explore questions relating to empathy vs. sympathy.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines empathy as “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.a).

This does not map perfectly, however, onto the definitions of empathy and sympathy in the academic literature on psychology.

According to some theorists of empathy, its core is feeling the emotions of another person rather than just being able to understand and imagine them (Lamm et al., 2019).

This is sometimes known as affective empathy and is close to, or the same as, emotional contagion (Coll et al., 2017).

Being able to understand or imagine the emotions of another without actually feeling them, meanwhile, is sometimes called cognitive empathy and is sometimes seen as less central to the definition of empathy (Strauss et al., 2016).

This is a view that we’ll discuss further when we compare empathy and sympathy.

Examples of Empathy

Empathy vs SympathyMost of us are familiar with the experience of empathy.

To get a sense of it, ask yourself whether you have ever:

  • Teared up when you saw or heard about someone suffering
  • Turned away from the screen during an unpleasant scene in a movie
  • Felt happy when a friend or loved one was happy

These would all be examples of affective empathy — “feeling with” someone.

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What Is Sympathy?

Having defined empathy, let’s now consider sympathy.

Sympathy meaning

The Cambridge Dictionary defines sympathy as: “(An expression of) understanding and care for someone else’s suffering” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.b).

Sympathy, then, has more to do with how we relate to someone who is suffering. Instead of just imagining or even sharing their feelings, we express our understanding and care for them.

This is close to the academic definition of sympathy. It is empathy combined with a sense of concern for another. This is also known in the academic literature as “empathic concern” (Bernhardt & Singer, 2012).

Another take on empathy vs. sympathy, however, defines sympathy a little differently, as a sense of concern for another that is accompanied by cognitive but not affective empathy.

In this sense, sympathy is closer to feeling pity for someone. While this is not a viewpoint that is well represented in the research literature, it is quite widespread, especially since this popular talk by Brené Brown.

Brené Brown on Empathy vs Sympathy

Examples of Sympathy

Using the dictionary definition of sympathy, it arises whenever we express concern for someone who is suffering, for example, a loved one or even people whom we have never met and never will, such as the victims of a natural disaster in another country.

Using the academic definition, we show sympathy when we show concern and empathize with the object or our concern. When we express concern for a loved one, we may well be experiencing emotional empathy by feeling their feelings.

When we sympathize with the victims of a natural disaster, meanwhile, we have no flesh-and-blood human in front of us to emotionally empathize with, and so we might instead have to rely on an intellectual understanding of others’ suffering (cognitive empathy).

Empathy vs. Sympathy: Understanding the Difference

empathic distressAs should be clear by now, the difference between empathy and sympathy depends upon the definitions used.

In one view of empathy vs. sympathy, sympathy is empathy — either affective or cognitive — together with concern for another.

On the other hand, sympathy is cognitive empathy, rather than affective empathy, together with concern for another.

But by any definition, the key to understanding the differences around empathy vs. sympathy is that sympathy always entails concern for another’s wellbeing, whereas empathy may not.

This can be true even when we care about the person who is suffering. In feeling their feelings, we may become overwhelmed by our own distress and more focused on ending our own suffering than theirs, for example by turning away or avoiding the suffering person. Known as “empathic distress,” it is an important obstacle to altruistic action (Eisenberg & Fabes, 1990).

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Moving Beyond Sympathy & Empathy: Compassion

Until now, we’ve been considering empathy vs. sympathy. Now it’s time to add another ingredient and think about empathy vs. sympathy vs. compassion.

As before, let’s start with the dictionary definition of compassion. The Cambridge Dictionary calls it “a strong feeling of sympathy and sadness for the suffering or bad luck of others and a wish to help them” (Cambridge University Press, n.d.c).

The dictionary definition maps closely onto the academic definition, which is something like: feelings of concern coupled with a motivation to reduce suffering (Singer & Klimecki, 2014). The key point is that compassion goes beyond concern for another and crosses over into a motivation to help.

Perhaps it is for that reason that compassion has received a good deal of attention in clinical as well as academic psychology. The motivation to help is implicit in clinical psychology, which is concerned with treating psychological distress.

A more recent addition is self-compassion: concern with one’s own suffering and a wish to alleviate it. This has been incorporated into psychotherapeutic interventions such as Compassion-Focused Therapy and Mindful Self-Compassion, which have been influenced by Buddhism, in which compassion is highly valued (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).

In these practices, participants offer compassion to themselves using a range of methods, including visualization and meditation (Neff & Germer, 2018).

Kristen Neff (2003), a researcher whose work on self-compassion has been very influential and who codeveloped mindful self-compassion, says that compassion and self-compassion have three elements (Neff, 2003):

  • Mindfulness — noticing and acknowledging suffering
  • Common humanity — recognizing that suffering is part of our shared human experience
  • Kindness — feeling a desire to help in some way

This can be contrasted with empathy, in which we feel another’s feelings but may not feel a desire to help, and sympathy, in which (in one definition) we recognize another’s suffering and want to help, but might not recognize the similarity between that person’s suffering and our own.

The Importance of Empathy in Leadership

Having compassionIn the academic literature on leadership, empathy is recognized as an important contributor to effective leadership (Sadri et al., 2011).

This may be increasingly true as organizations contain ever more diverse groups of employees, who are likely to feel more accepted, supported, and able to contribute fully when led by an empathic leader (Choi, 2006).

The definition of effective leadership is, at the same time, changing to make empathy more relevant. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 2030 include in their criteria for effective leadership positive social and environmental impact, which is likely to be promoted by empathic leadership (Zivkovic, 2022).

Empathy may contribute to effective leadership in a range of ways. It may:

  • Allow leaders to understand others’ perspectives and opinions
  • Make work more enjoyable (Voss et al., 2010)
  • Inspire and motivate others to work more effectively by allowing leaders to connect with employees (Goleman, 1995)
  • Allow leaders to connect effectively with employees from different cultures
  • Allow them to listen to, serve, and understand relationships among employees (Marques, 2010)
  • Allow them to earn employees’ trust by placing themselves in the same position as their employees (Gardner & Stough, 2002)
  • Help them understand situations and accept the opinions and ideas of others (Goleman et al., 2002)
  • Create an atmosphere of openness (Goleman, 2001)
  • Allow leaders to adapt to new situations (Tager, 2004)
  • Enable them to read between the lines (Skinner & Spurgeon, 2005)

There is some evidence that female leaders, on average, are more empathic, which enables them to be more effective at both individual and organizational levels (Appelbaum et al., 2013).

It is possible, however, that empathy needs to be bidirectional. Some researchers have warned that it can result in cognitive overload, exhaustion, and bias, which means that leaders need to receive as well as give empathy (Bachmann & Faundes, 2021).

Practical Tips to Develop Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to identify and manage your own emotions and understand and respond to the emotions of others.

If you are interested in helping your clients improve their emotional intelligence and ability to empathize, here are practical methods offered by emotional intelligence consultants RocheMartin (2022):

  1. Get to know your emotions by setting a timer to go off at various points in the day. When it does, take a few moments to notice your feelings.
  2. When checking in with your emotions, notice what you were doing when the timer went off and reflect on how your emotions were affecting your behavior.
  3. Question your opinions by taking time to read the opposite position on an issue that you are interested in.
  4. Build self-awareness by keeping a diary.
  5. See yourself objectively by asking others around you about your strengths and weaknesses, in particular how they see you responding to difficult situations and conflict and how empathic you are.

5 Useful Worksheets for Your Clients

Help your clients distinguish empathizing from other kinds of interactions with this game of Empathy Bingo.

This Trading Places worksheet helps your clients put themselves in another’s place and understand their thoughts and feelings. It is an exercise in cognitive empathy, though it could also lead to affective empathy. With practice, your client might find it easier and more natural to empathize with others.

This worksheet addresses empathy distress. When we are so overwhelmed by feeling another’s distress, we might focus not on helping them, but on reducing our own distress. Use this worksheet to look beyond empathy distress and connect with a sense of compassion, which motivates us to help.

Telling an Empathy Story is another exercise for cultivating empathy, and it can be used with clients individually or in groups. In it, they will work on developing empathy by telling a story from another’s point of view.

This Understanding Empathy worksheet is a teaching tool for use with students. It provides a video for the students to watch, after which they discuss and role-play empathy in fictional scenarios drawn from the worksheet.

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These 17 Emotional Intelligence Exercises [PDF] will help others strengthen their relationships, lower stress, and enhance their wellbeing through improved EQ.

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

We have a wide range of tools and articles that can be used to assist in the development of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.


Our article on the neuroscience of empathy will help you understand how our biology is built for empathy.

To cultivate more empathy in your clients, they could use the empathy worksheets presented in our article on developing empathy.

If you would like more information on what empathy is and what it looks like, try our empathy and psychology article, which defines empathy from a psychological perspective.

3 Free Tools

For help with training in emotional intelligence, you could download this Free Emotional Intelligence Exercises Pack and try out the powerful tools it contains.

  • Building Emotional Intelligence
    Teach your clients how to build up emotional awareness through mindfulness meditation.
  • Decoding Emotions by Analyzing Speech, Body, and Face
    Help your clients build up cognitive empathy, the ability to accurately read the emotions of others.
  • Identifying False Beliefs About Emotions
    Help clients identify any distorted or false beliefs that they hold about emotions.

Toolkit tools

If you find the above-mentioned tools helpful, you can access many more with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©. Here are brief summaries of three tools that you will find there:

  1. Help clients connect empathically using the Breathing Together tool. This tool is especially useful for couples therapy. In this tool, two people sit opposite one another.
    • Step one – Both participants start to meditate on the breath, simply by paying attention to how it feels.
    • Step two – The participants should look at one another, synchronize their breathing, and continue like that for a few minutes.
  1. Clients can find meaning in their pain by learning how to use it to benefit others with this tool on Transcending Pain: Using Personal Suffering to Benefit Others. This tool consists of four steps:
    • Step one – Recognize that our pain can provide us with the empathy to help others going through something similar to what we have experienced.
    • Step two – Reflect on a specific occasion from your life that was painful.
    • Step three – Reflect on how you can use that experience to help others who are suffering in the same way you did.
    • Step four – Reflect on what effect this exercise has had on you and how you can continue to use your pain to benefit others.
  1. The Kindness Quest tool is for use with children. It teaches them about being kind, which can be a positive consequence of empathy. In brief, it goes like this:
    • Step one – Talk to the child about what kindness is and give some examples.
    • Step two – Let the child think of examples of kindness and encourage them to pick some to carry out.
    • Step three – Support the child to carry out one act of kindness per day for a week.
    • Step four – At the end of each day, reflect with the child on the experience of being kind that day.
    • Step five – At the end of the week, reflect with the child on their week of kind acts.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

The distinctions surrounding empathy vs. sympathy can be confusing, because these two ideas are closely linked. Also, different authors use the terms in different ways, and they overlap with related ideas like emotional intelligence and compassion.

But in all definitions, they have something to do with a positive orientation toward others’ feelings.

At the least, we understand another person’s feelings, and at the most, we are motivated to take action to help them.

These are crucial aspects of what it means to be human, and most of us could do with giving our capacities for empathy and sympathy some attention to make sure that they are serving us and others as well as possible.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

Saying sorry may arise from either sympathy or empathy, or both. If we can empathically feel another’s distress, the central feature of empathy, it might lead us to apologize, and the same is true if we feel a wish to alleviate their distress, even if we can’t feel it ourselves (this being sympathy).

It is possible that someone’s capacity could be overwhelmed by empathy. If we see someone else suffering and find the experience upsetting, we might be more concerned with making ourselves feel better (e.g., by looking away) than with helping the person who is suffering.

This is a person who has excellent cognitive empathy — the ability to know intellectually what someone else is feeling, without feeling it themselves — and uses that information for their own advantage. Psychopaths are dark empaths.

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