Sympathy: I feel for you
Empathy: I feel with you
Compassion: Empathy in action
In general, empathy is usually described as the deeper of the two feelings. Feeling empathy means that we understand how another person is feeling, and perhaps have a shared experience. We express our sympathy to another person, but usually don't really know how they are feeling.
In this article we explore the differences in meaning between the two words, and how we express both sympathy and empathy. We ask the opinions of grief counselors, we talk about how to become more empathetic and we share some of our favourite quotes. There is also an excellent video by Brené Brown which describes sympathy vs empathy in a humorous animated short clip.
In my view, sympathy is something we often express quite formally to those who are grieving a loss. We send cards and flowers and we have a range of traditional expressions and quotes that we can use.
Sympathy can be expressed by anyone, even if they don't really understand the feelings of the person who has suffered a loss. You may never have lost anyone yourself, or know what it would feel like, but you can express your sympathy.
People frequently don't know what to say when someone suffers a loss and for that reason our pages which give examples of words of sympathy, letters, messages and phrases to express sympathy are our most visited pages.
Of course, sympathy doesn't necessarily exclude empathy. You might have had a very similar experience to someone and have a good idea of what they might be suffering, but you would still send a sympathy message. It might go a bit deeper though, and also lead to action such as a phone call, a visit or a shoulder to cry on, in which case, it would then overlap with empathy.
Empathy is a much deeper form of sympathy, where you really feel what the other person is experiencing. Empathy usually comes from a shared experience. You have been through grief, or illness, or miscarriage, or divorce or separation yourself and have an idea of what the person is going through.
But real empathy would also acknowledge that what the person is experiencing may be very different from your own reaction to the same circumstance. Real empathy does not impose your opinion of how someone is feeling, but asks and wants to know. It is an open-hearted invitation for the other person to express how they are feeling and a desire to put oneself in their shoes and walk a while with them.
We asked a group of grief professionals to explain what they meant by the two terms. They had some really eloquent answers and we share some of them here. We express our heartfelt thanks for these beautiful insights.
"Remember that everyone you meet is afraid of something, loves something and has lost something." H. Jackson Brown
I heard on the radio the other day that children are becoming less good at reading the emotions of others because so many of their interactions these days are online. They are getting into fights more because they can't read the facial expressions of other children. This doesn't bode well for empathy in the future.
I also notice that there are so many arguments and disputes on social media these days, simply because people misunderstand others through what they have written. Relationships break down and disputes arise because the face to face signals are missing. It is so important for children and teenagers to interact as much as possible face to face with real people to learn skills such as empathy so that they can develop meaningful and long-lasting relationships.
Life's hard knocks will automatically make us more empathetic and experiencing grief, or chronic illness will give us the insights we need to have more empathy for others.
But you don't have to have had a hard time yourself to be able to express empathy for others.
Here are some things which will help develop empathy:
Developing empathy can only help society and will lead to more compassion for our fellow human beings and, of course, for animals too.
This site is a great resource for teaching kids about empathy: Inspiremykids.com
"The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen." Elisabeth Kubler-Ross
"Empathy is about finding echoes of another person in yourself. "Mohsin Hamid
"The opposite of anger is not calmness. It's empathy." Mehmet Oz
"When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares." Henri J.M. Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life
"If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it." Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird
"Empathy grows as we learn." Alice Miller
"Empathy is like giving someone a psychological hug." Lawrence J
"Our bodies have five senses: touch, smell, taste, sight, hearing. But not to be overlooked are the senses of our souls: intuition, peace, foresight, trust, empathy. The differences between people lie in their use of these senses; most people don't know anything about the inner senses while a few people rely on them just as they rely on their physical senses, and in fact probably even more." C. JoyBell C.
"Empathy may be the single most important quality that must be nurtured to give peace a fighting chance." Arundhati Roy
"I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it." Maya Angelou
"Empathy is really the opposite of spiritual meanness. It's the capacity to understand that every war is both won and lost. And that someone else's pain is as meaningful as your own." Barbara Kingsolver
"Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection - or compassionate action." Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships
"Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around." Leo F. Buscaglia
"If speaking is silver, then listening is gold." Turkish Proverb
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