The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

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what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

let’s use this situation for example:

a friend shares with you that she didn’t get the job she was super excited about. the interview didn’t go very well and now she’s questioning her career choice.

sympathy, in this example would be sharing in your friend’s feelings. you are sad and disappointed for your friend because she is sad and disappointed about the job. sympathy is showing concern for someone when something happens and hoping it gets better.

empathy, on the other hand, is not only putting yourself in your friend’s shoes to understand where they are coming from but then you yourself experiencing the emotions. you feel what your friend feels. it’s the ability to understand one’s own feelings as if you’re experiencing them for yourself. you are feeling the deep sadness, disappointment and anxiety as if you had the interview and didn’t get the job.

the difference between empathy and sympathy

i am a very empathetic person.

i can remember being a little girl and feeling claustrophobic and panicky when i looked at the ladybugs i caught in the jar. they immediately had to be set free. i could deeply and intensely imagine how they might be feeling trapped in a jar.

i also remember sobbing while watching movies like ‘homeward bound‘ when everyone thinks the golden retriever is dead but then crying even harder tears of relief when he comes home! or feeling so awkward, uncomfortable and pleading along as i read “are you there god? it’s me, margaret.

i sort of assumed everyone experienced books, movies and life as i did.

well, turns out, that’s not the case.

that damn sarah mclachlan and the dog rescue commercial came out the year ravery and i started dating. i was in full hysterics by the time it was over and while he understood that animal abuse is horrible and sad, he was not a puddle on the floor.

or i had friends that looooved watching marathon episodes of law & order: SUV. any time i watched one, it would take me the rest of the day to recover because i continued to be haunted from “experiencing” the horrific offenses that are considered especially heinous.

so the difference between empathy and sympathy:

look at where the words come from:

sympathy: the ‘syn’ comes from greek, meaning ‘with’ and ‘path,’ meaning to ‘suffer.’

empathy: the ‘en’ also comes from greek, meaning ‘in’ and ‘path, meaning to ‘suffer.’

when you are experiencing sympathy for someone, you are with them while they experience their emotions. when you are experiencing empathy for someone, it’s almost like you’re in them, feeling deeply those same emotions.

i didn’t always have the language to understand this (thanks social work) and now that i do, i know how to better take care of myself.

next week i’ll be sharing how to take better care of yourself if you’re a highly empathetic person like myself!


  1. Audrey

    April 20, 2018 at 5:55 pm

    Girl. I am RIGHT there with you in empathetic land. I knew the difference to an extent, but your definition and examples have cleared it all up for me.
    When I heard about friends getting divorced or splitting up I become a total mess. Poor Kyle. I go into full on heartbreak and meltdown. Same with reading about/hearing about/watching a TV show that have a rape story line. I just completely fall apart. I’m looking forward to next week’s post!!
    (Enjoy Ohio!!!!!)

  2. chelsea jacobs

    April 23, 2018 at 8:16 am

    1) This is so well said and so well explained!

    2) Very much looking forward to that post because I am exactly like you in the empathetic sense. I’m excited to read your advice on caring for yourself!