Empathy and Sympathy

As  I mentioned in my last post, I thought it could be helpful to define empathy and sympathy, as the two are often contrasted. On my way to the dictionary, I passed my 10-year old son.  I decided to ask him what he knew about empathy and sympathy. ‘Oh!  I know – we were just talking about this at school. Let’s see, sympathy is if, umm... something bad happens to someone and you feel bad about it.  And the other one is if you do something about it.’

‘Is the other one empathy?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, that’s it.  Empathy is if something bad happens to someone and you do something about it.’

‘What if something good happens to someone and you celebrate with them?  Can that be empathy?’

‘I don’t know.  Maybe. Yeah, I guess so.  Yes, that counts too.’

I’m not sure this is how I would have drawn a contrast between empathy and sympathy, but it provided an interesting starting point.  I was heartened by my son’s response (he must have a good teacher!) and also liked that he was willing to extend his idea empathy to embrace positive events as well.

I then looked at definitions of empathy set out by the artist and applied linguist Lynne Cameron in her research on empathy dynamics, and Roman Krznaric, the writer and philosopher who recently published Empathy, A Handbook for Revolution.

Here is what I found:

Lynne Cameron defines empathy as ‘one person understanding how it feels to be another person.’  She continues, ‘Empathy is action.  Empathy is something we DO, not something we have.’

Roman Krznaric offers this definition: ‘Empathy is the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.’ (italics mine)

All three of my sources (my son, Lynne, and Roman) promote the idea that empathy involves action.

If action as opposed to non-action is one of the key differences between empathy vs. sympathy, what other contrasts then follow?  Some interesting contrasts popped up as I thought about this:



Passive Active
Distance Involvement
Commentary Response
Low stakes Risks and rewards of engagement
Safe Vulnerable

Sympathy feels like watching a TV sitcom with only half my attention.  I can turn it off, I can walk away.  I have invested very little.  I see the characters, but they don’t see me.  There is a flatness to sympathy.

An example of sympathy as a learned social grace could be the Barbie at the end of Toy Story 2.  As she does her duty and wishes everyone a good day, she has a painful grimace on her face.  Once she thinks everyone has left the theatre, she drops her smile, relieved to be free of her role.   At this extreme, sympathy veers into insincerity.  A sympathetic gesture can be kind, soothing, even helpful, but a distance remains between the people involved.  Sympathy is not a bad or false emotion, but I wonder if it stays safely on the surface.

Sometimes, sympathy is marked with an undercurrent of relief that says ‘I’m glad that’s not me.’  On the other hand, empathy recognizes that ‘fundamentally, I am no different from this person.’  We wear different clothes, eat different foods, speak different languages, have different amounts of money, true, but the core emotions that connect us – fear, joy, uncertainty, elation, shame, desire –these are the same.

Empathy feels like a powerful equation or potent chemical in the repertoire of human interaction.   It is a tool of engagement.  And as with other tools, such as imagination or intellect, it takes time and practice to wield it with skill.

During my first years in the classroom, I believe empathy was my strength as well as my weakness.  While I could connect with my students, I could also become too wrapped up in the whirlpools of someone else’s confusion, too easily tossed by another’s tempest.  Perhaps this was empathy untamed, unaware.   I often think that effective social workers, medical professionals, clergy, teachers, counsellors, and others in the helping professions must spend years learning the language of empathy and becoming skilled at remaining separate from but present for another.

I wonder if one part of empathy comes from witnessing another’s story to recognize shared experiences or emotions.  And then another, equally important, part is leaning forward to hear the details of difference that make each person’s experience unique.

Perhaps empathy requires listening until the whole story has been told, the speaker’s perspective has been drawn.  We might ask questions fuelled by curiosity:  Is there anything to add?  Are there colours in the background that shade the meaning?  Are there layers to uncover?  After as much of a picture has been created as the person wants or is able to tell, an empathic response might be to sit back and observe the whole.  Pause. With a bit of time and patience, an idea may arise.  Empathy involves action, yes, but it needs to be a considered response instead of a rush to fixes, stock advice, or band-aids.

If we were to respond to every piece of news and every interaction with complete empathy, what would happen?  Would we find ourselves without boundaries, drowning in every passerby’s sorrows, buoyed by every stranger’s joys? Would we approach enlightenment? Or madness?

I don’t know.  But I feel that to engage at this level of empathy in every instance would be draining.  Instead, we can practice in small steps, choosing empathy when seeing a friend, or during a difficult conversation, or when helping a child.  We can build our empathy muscles interaction by interaction, growing in both strength and fluency with time.  As we grow stronger, we can reach further.

Empathy is an art we can spend a lifetime practicing.


Next time: What prevents empathy?  What is the opposite of empathy?  Why does empathy get blocked?

Registration continues for the workshop on Empathy and Creativity on 6 June at 5th Base Gallery, just of Brick Lane in London.   I'd be so pleased to welcome you there!   Click here to go to the registration page.

Also, the exhibition, The Living Impulse, that has inspired these posts and the writing workshop will be open to the public from 14.00-20.00,  6 -11 June, and from 17.00-21.00 on 5 June.  There are many other events occurring, and it's a wonderful chance to meet Lynne Cameron.