Sympathy vs. Empathy in Talking and Relationships

Genuine empathy could come across as pity.
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Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Sometimes, people even reject empathy, as Jane Bolton points out in "Stop Giving Me Empathy! It Makes Me Feel Bad," in Psychology Today. Yet true empathy is often a pathway to closeness and bonding. To become more empathetic with others, and allow others to show empathy to you, it is important to understand what empathy actually is.

1 What Sympathy Means

Bolton explains that one of the reasons people reject empathy is that they confuse it with sympathy. Sympathy occurs when you feel the other person’s feelings but do not take her perspective, notes Dr. Brad Bell on the PsychologyandSociety. website. For example, you might feel sad when your girlfriend cries. Bolton notes that people who feel sympathy often try to fix the problem rather than letting the other person simply vent her emotions. Sympathetic people also bring up similar situations from their own past.

2 What Empathy Means

Bell notes that empathy is a two-part process in which you not only feel the other person’s emotions, but you understand why they are occurring. Bolton points out that this process is complicated, as it requires you to integrate your thoughts and feelings. To successfully empathize, you must leave your own feelings out of the equation. Bolton calls this engaged detachment -- you are in the moment with the other person, but you stay distant enough to analyze and understand his feelings.

3 Learning to Be Empathic

While babies are born with innate sympathy, learning empathy takes work. Bolton notes that barriers to empathy include frustration at being misunderstood, the desire to punish people who hurt us, and the fear of rewarding poor behavior. In the article, "Raise Self Esteem with the Lifeblood of Empathy," in Psychology Today, Bolton states that empathy requires you to temporarily set your own feelings and judgments aside to focus on the feelings of the other person. To do this, consciously remind yourself that you need to reconnect with your partner before you can correct the misunderstanding. Take a deep breath and actively listen to what he is saying. Consider his point of view, even if you think it is “wrong,” and analyze the situation from that perspective. Like all skills, empathy becomes easier over time.

4 The Pity Trap

In “Stop Giving Me Empathy!” Bolton points out that some people reject empathy because they confuse it with pity. Pity is a condescending emotion that makes you feel like you are better than the person going through the tough time. It is insulting and causes distance in your relationship. If your partner has low self-esteem or frequently beats herself up for vulnerable emotions, be especially careful with how you come across. She might mistake your genuine empathy for pity.

Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer specializing in disabled adventure travel. She spent 15 years working for Central Florida theme parks and frequently travels with her disabled father. Fritscher's work can be found in both print and online mediums, including She holds a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of South Florida.