How do you respond when someone you care about is hurting?
Do you say:
A. “I’m sorry you’re in pain.”
B. “I know how you’re feeling. I’ve been there too.”
C. “I can see you’re in pain, how can I help?”
Life can be hard—and at times, very hard. And sometimes, it can be even harder to watch someone go through something challenging than experiencing it yourself. Are you a friend who deeply internalizes the painful experiences of others, or do you keep those emotions at an arm’s distance?
Words like sympathy and empathy describe the nuanced differences between the very complex social connections and reactions we display when we’re suffering or when we see others in pain.
While these words are related, they mean very different things and the behaviors we mirror of them are different, too.
“The crucial difference is that sympathy acknowledges another’s pain, but empathy is choosing to feel another’s pain with them,” said Jerimya Fox, a licensed professional counselor and a doctor of behavioral health at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital. “Sympathy says, ‘I’m sorry,’ whereas empathy says, ‘I’m hurting with you.’”
Here’s a deeper breakdown of the two.
Sympathy: “I’m sorry you’re in pain.”
Sympathy is the feeling that you care about, are sorry for or have pity for someone’s grief, misfortune or loss. Although you express sadness, you distinctly keep your own emotions separate from what the other person is feeling. Basically, you can commiserate with the struggle and feel for them, but don’t have to emotionally walk in their shoes. Sadness is a more logical and rational response to seeing others grieving, even if your response is sadness for them.
“Sympathy is often given when you might not relate to or fully comprehend what the other person is dealing with,” Dr. Fox said. “For example, feeling concerned about a friend who has cancer and hoping the treatments go well when you haven’t had to personally experience this before.”
Empathy: “I know how you’re feeling. I’ve been there too.”
Have you walked a mile in someone else’s shoes? This is empathy.
“With empathy, you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and view things through their eyes—getting a real sense of what they’re experiencing—rather than feeling bad for them,” Dr. Fox said. “For example, I have empathy for a new student who joined the class, because I once was the new kid who switched schools mid-year.”
Empathy is the ability to be aware of and sensitive to others’ feelings, thoughts and experiences—past or present—even if you’ve actually never felt, thought or experienced them. You are able to create and hold space for others’ feelings, which in turn can create a shared experience and deeper connection with them.
Sympathy vs. empathy: Is one better than the other?
Based on the descriptions of sympathy and empathy, one might consider empathy better than sympathy. I mean, who doesn’t want to be comforted and consoled versus feeling like others are just pitying them?
But Dr. Fox noted that there can be cases where neither sympathy nor empathy is the ideal choice.
For example, someone who is deeply empathetic often takes on the emotions of other people, which can cause issues. If you’re attempting to support someone angry or upset, you aren’t helping them by empathizing and becoming anxious and angry yourself. In this situation, your friend may need someone calm, logical and levelheaded, rather than sharing in fear and frustration.
“We see this a lot in health care workers where it can be emotionally and physically exhausting,” Dr. Fox. “They may experience what we call compassion fatigue syndrome.”
On the other hand, it may be easier to be sympathetic—especially in work situations or with someone you aren’t intimately connected with—but in some situations, it can hinder you from deeper connections with others.
What about compassion: “I can see you’re in pain, how can I help?”
Both empathy and sympathy come from a place of sincerity, which are both expressions of compassion, or “feeling concern for someone else and wanting to help them,” Dr. Fox said.
“The distinction is that being compassionate doesn’t require you to share in someone’s feelings,” he said. “It’s the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and put their needs before your own.”
Sometimes compassion is in the form of just holding space and being present for someone, and sometimes it means doing something actionable, such as bringing a meal.
The greatest benefit to compassion is that it is replenishable. When you have the ability to feel concerned for someone and help them, you are less likely to burn out.
Building your empathy, sympathy and compassion muscles
There are many reasons that some people are more empathetic, sympathetic or compassionate than others, but if you fall short in any one of these there are skills that can be developed.
Here are some steps you can take:
- Actively listen to others
- Be curious
- Talk with people from different walks of life, cultures and upbringings
- Seek help from family, friends or a behavioral health specialist
If you’re struggling emotionally to connect with others or are bearing the weight of others’ pain, don’t hesitate to reach out to a trusted friend or a behavioral health specialist who can help you process and work through these challenges. To find a Banner Health specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.