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One is better than the other in most situations.
Thought they were the same? You're not alone (an empathetic reaction) and sorry if this is jarring information for you (a sympathetic reaction). But the two emotions are totally different.
They feel different, when a person has empathy, they resonate with how the other person feels as a fellow and equal human being. Sympathy is pity. When someone pities someone else, they are looking down on that person.
Empathy and sympathy each have their own set of circumstances where one might be the best emotional reaction over the other. Sometimes, you might want to try to relate to someone on their level—and if you've ever been in their position, that may even come naturally. Other times, you might not be able to relate to what they're going through, especially in situations where it might not be appropriate or possible, like losing a parent, for example.
The biggest difference between empathy and sympathy is how much you are trying to connect with someone on a personal level in your interaction. Empathy is when you really listen for a feeling and try to relate to the feeling for a moment and you convey an understanding of that person’s feelings, whereas sympathy is focused on feeling sorry for someone and potentially even pitying them. You’re not working to understand how they feel; you’re putting yourself at a distance.
One example she gives to illustrate this difference: If a sympathetic person sees a houseless person, they might give that person change and go on about their day. An empathetic person, however, would spend time with a houseless person, maybe taking them for a meal, and attempt to connect with them on a human level.
When you're expressing empathy...
When you're expressing sympathy...
The short answer? Almost always. By trying to relate your friend's feelings, you're not only validating them and their reaction; you're also letting them know that the emotional reaction they're having is okay—it's human. The key here is that the other person should then act on their feelings in an emotionally intelligent or constructive way. Empathy does not give them a free pass to respond however they may want.
Empathy, helps a person feel less alone in their plight and feel connected and close to someone. This can help them feel that they’re more apt or able to solve their own problems.
You may not have gone through this person's exact situation, but you can tap into other moments in your life where you've experienced that emotion. Think more about relating to the feeling than trying to understand the situation itself. Feelings are universal...I know exactly how it feels to feel left out. I know exactly how it feels to feel put down. Trying to understand the feeling—that’s what you’re going for.
When you think you might be leaning toward sympathy or pity with a loved one, remember to relate to them through the feeling they're expressing. When was the last time you felt such a way, and what do you wish someone might've told you during that time? That can help guide you toward an empathetic response in appropriate situations.
Compassion is the basis of both sympathy and empathy. Leonard likes to think of compassion as "trying to understand and feeling for another person," which means it's a useful tool in both sympathetic and empathetic reactions. Sometimes, tapping into your compassionate side can help you bridge the gap between yourself and someone else. And any time you're trying your best to understand another person, says Leonard, you're doing something right.
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