June 24, 2015

Empathy’s Ugly Cousin.

empathy ice cream

Empathy is a wonderful trait. It allows us to connect with people, experience their emotions, share common ground and foster a compassionate approach toward them.

Real empathy is selfless, giving, understanding and accepting. To be all of these things, and to see the effect they have on others, is incredibly nourishing.

In fact, of our nine fundamental human needs, three relate directly to empathy: affection, understanding and identity. We need to feel that we’ve been heard, that we are understood, that we are important and that we are loved.

However, sometimes it isn’t easy to be or feel empathetic. When we’re tired, stressed and anxious, our defenses are lowered. It’s in these times that we risk unintentionally offering empathy’s ugly cousin: sympathy.

While sympathy does share a number of similarities with empathy, ultimately, the two are vastly different—one actively helps us move forward and the other may just prevent us from letting go of our grief.

So, what is the real difference between empathy and sympathy?


Sympathy is defined as “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune… (Merriam-Webster)

Sympathy is distinct in that it implies a certain level of pity. This suggests that the experience of misfortune is so unenviable that we ourselves choose not to fully relate to it.

While we do feel bad for the person, we separate ourselves from them by acknowledging it’s their trouble, their grief and their misfortune. In doing so, we feed their “pity party,” validating their sorrow, reinforcing the unfairness of their situation.

Validation of this nature can be hard to let go of, because it actually feels good; It’s nice to know that someone is worried about you, cares for you and is thinking of you.

However, when we refuse to let go, we refuse to move on. Thus, by offering sympathy, we might accidentally be preventing others from letting go of the source of their validation: their misfortune.

I’m sure you can think of someone who always seems plagued by problems. They may simply be unlucky, but it’s more likely that they’ve built a habit of dragging misfortune around with them in order to harness sympathy. What’s worse, most of these people are completely and utterly oblivious of this unhealthy habit. Empathy is the only thing that can break the cycle.


Empathy is different. While there are varying definitions, the one that best highlights its true nature describes it as “making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.”

Essentially, empathy is seeing the common humanity in the experience of others—not just picturing ourselves in their situation, but feeling their emotions, mindsets and beliefs.

In a recent article I discussed how the psychology of self-compassion is the key to long-term, stable self-confidence. In the article we discovered that one of the three key components of self-compassion is common humanity. To feel good about ourselves, we need to feel that our experiences are “normal,” ie. also experienced by others.

When we take an empathetic approach, we reinforce this sense of common humanity, which builds stronger self-compassion and leads to long-term self-confidence. This is what makes empathy so powerful—it has incredible flow-on effects, allowing people to let go of their troubles.

Rather than saying “I am sorry for your misfortune or “I am here to support you,” we should be saying “I can feel how difficult this is, because I too have experienced difficulty” or “I am here to support you through this.”

This simple tweak in mindset and terminology could make all the difference.

So, the next time someone needs you, ask yourself how you can take them by the hand and help them through this, rather than just patting them on the back and saying, “There, there.”


Author: Garrick Transell

Editor: Evan Yerburgh

Image: Flickr

Read 3 Comments and Reply

Read 3 comments and reply

Top Contributors Latest

Garrick Transell  |  Contribution: 2,300