The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy

Sympathy and empathy are both involved in interpersonal relationships. Understanding the differences between them is key to identifying how we act toward others. In this article, we're going to explore the fundamental distinctions between the two concepts.
The Differences Between Empathy and Sympathy
Matias Rizzuto

Written and verified by the philosopher Matias Rizzuto.

Last update: 29 August, 2023

Empathy and sympathy are two terms that are often used interchangeably. However, in reality, they’re different concepts. Indeed, while both refer to the ability to understand and feel the emotions of others, the way in which they’re experienced and expressed isn’t the same.

In this article, we’re going to explore the differences between being empathetic and sympathetic. We’ll also discover how these abilities affect our relationships and personal development.


Sympathy allows us to understand other people’s emotional states. A study published in Emotion Review claims that, when we feel sympathy for someone, we might understand the situation they’re going through and show concern over their problems but we don’t get emotionally involved.

In fact, sympathy might help us to give them useful advice or feel sorry for them, but they may not necessarily feel heard.

That’s not to say that sympathy isn’t appropriate. For example, when those we don’t know particularly well lose loved ones, we send messages of sympathy. However, for those we know deeply and intimately, sympathy is insufficient. It could even be viewed as emotional coldness.


When we’re empathetic, as with sympathy, we identify the emotional states of others, but we also share them. Being empathetic means having the ability to feel firsthand what others are experiencing.  It means putting ourselves in others’ shoes and understanding and participating in their emotions.

A cognitive and behavioral neuroscience study published in Mind & Society claims that empathy is related to complex mental and emotional mechanisms, involving mirror neurons. They’re activated by a specific action being performed and by the observation of others doing the same.

Empathy is an important skill in interpersonal relationships, as it allows us to connect with others on deeper levels. When we’re empathetic, we better understand their needs and desires. This results in more effective responses.

We often feel greater empathy for those with whom we identify, even if the differences are minimal. For example, a study published in the Journal of Experimental Child Psychology found that children randomly assigned to red and blue groups tended to exhibit more empathy toward their own team.

Differences between empathy and sympathy

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of others and feel what they feel.  On the other hand, sympathy is the inclination toward affection or affinity for others. Both attitudes are important for establishing positive human relationships, but they aren’t the same. Next, we’re going to examine four differences between sympathy and empathy.

1. Type of listening

When we listen to others sympathetically, we might try to give them advice on what to do. However, listening to others without judging is an essential characteristic of empathy. In fact, although giving advice may be helpful, empathy might only involve telling others they can count on us for what they need.

2. Level of depth

Sympathy helps us distinguish the emotions of others. It helps us feel sorry or concerned about their situations. But, empathy links us with them in a deeper way, through our emotions. If they’re experiencing anguish, we feel their anguish as if it were our own.

3. Point of view

With sympathy, we observe others from our own points of view. It’s easy to tell others what to do when we’re not emotionally involved. However, empathy leads us to understand their feelings from their points of view. We don’t merely think about what we’d do if we were them, but what they can do in their situation.

4. Degree of openness

To be sympathetic, we don’t need to establish deep bonds. Whether we’re dealing with acquaintances or colleagues, gestures of sympathy help us maintain cordial treatment. To be empathetic, we must open ourselves to feel the pain of others, without judging or minimizing it.

This openness is beneficial since it helps them feel accompanied and validated in their emotions. On the other hand, it’s also risky for us, since we may feel vulnerable when sharing their suffering. Therefore, taking care of our emotional balance and establishing healthy boundaries when practicing empathy are important.

The need to know the differences between empathy and sympathy

The differences between empathy and sympathy are based on how we relate to others. While sympathy implies a deep understanding, empathy focuses on concern and support without the need for feelings to be involved. By cultivating empathy, we also give ourselves the opportunity to grow as individuals and enhance our personal development.

Moreover, being aware of the differences between empathy and sympathy allows us to be thoughtful in our interactions. This is key in making decisions about how we want to relate to and contribute to the well-being of others.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.