Why Empathy Is Better Than Sympathy

This video does a great description of the difference:

In my opinion, it’s one of the things modern society is losing and its leaving a lot of people feeling empty and isolated from others.  In place of friends we can talk to, we have a collection of “facebook friends”.

There was an article recently about the fierce competition to get likes on social media. We have birthdays and life events to acknowledge. When we do meet old acquaintances and start to share a story, they might go, “Oh yes, I remember you posting about that.”

As the video above describes, empathy drives a connection while sympathy does the opposite.  When give sympathy, you are separating yourself from the others pain. You are only an onlooker.  While the empath feels it with them and relates to it.

However, being empathetic is not as easy as just going, “There, there. I understand your pain.  I’ve had something similar happen to me.”

Unless you can relate, your attempt might come off as tone-deaf and trying to make the other person’s problem about you.

For example, if a young woman raised in affluence went into a working collar neighborhood of extreme poverty where women are working three jobs to support their children and said, “I can relate to your suffering and struggle” we might think her bonkers and cold.

What does she know of their situation?

Nevertheless, it is possible for her to know.  Some people, regardless of background, are very empathetic and capable of seeing through the other person’s eyes.  It is just unlikely.

Just as men may never know what childbirth feels like, women may never know well the problems men face. We like to think we know, but do we really?

Even if we can’t, sincerely trying to understand the other side can make a huge difference.  Back on that affluent woman example, if she is making an honest attempt to understand, they may be touched that she is trying.

Real empathy is very difficult.  If you don’t come across as sincere, then you come across as a jerk. Everyone agrees that empathy is a good thing, but sympathy is a lot easier to give than empathy.

These days I see many of my peers who are so afraid to risk “empathy” that they run from it and toss out sympathy as they go.  Another problem with empathy is it requires knowing yourself. You can’t understand another’s pain unless you know your own.

However, most live in a bubble of denial about who they really are. All they want is sympathy from others and yet that makes them feel more isolated.  They refuse to see others pain and even downplay it in favor of their own.

They go through the motions of caring for others, but want others to care for them.

It took me years to realize this, but when I was in college I noticed a competition among class mates and friends for “who was the most pitiful of them all”.  Everyone seemed to compete with who had it worst and act like no one else knew suffering better than them.

Once they had achieved “the worst off of them all”, they then used that to excuse all their bad behavior. They refused to be empathetic to others because that would mean taking off their self-appointed crown of misery and acknowledge that others have pain.

The one thing they absolutely refused to admit was that pain can be overcome, especially through empathy.  They favored wallowing in a bubble of “nobody understands me!”

Sometimes (often) another had a worst plight than they did. They would quiet and you could see the seething in their eyes as they watched everyone pour sympathy and attention on this other. Instead of feeling bad for the person’s pain, they looked at them as a competitor for eternal victimhood.  That was their attention. How dare this person steal it!

I realize now that they were the type of people you avoid. They will give you sympathy, but they will never empathize with you.  All they really want is for you to constantly tell them how they have the “worst of all” so that nothing is ever their fault.

Well, sorry for a messy post.  This was just my thoughts on this.  What do you think?



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When I was in my twenties, I moved to Japan and met a man there. We embarked on our adventure through life and love. I have lived with him in Japan ever since. We want to start a family, but that is proving difficult. I struggle with infertility. We almost had a child, but that ended in tragedy. Now we enjoy each day and hope that one day we'll hear the pitter-patter of little feet and the bubbly laughter of a child. In the meantime, I enjoy writing, love, studying, traveling, and working. These posts are my thoughts and stories of my life here.

6 thoughts on “Why Empathy Is Better Than Sympathy”

    1. Thank you for reading this. It’s always great hearing from you. 🙂

      It is so easy to get sucked into the sympathy trap. I’ve done it as well.

      When one battles the issues my body does, it’s hard not to get sympathy. I think that’s why I sought out other women who blog about similar issues. I was searching for people who could empathize.

      Others who understood.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Sometimes our support group turns into a sympathy competition. I find I get closer to the ones that don’t go on about their troubles as much. The quiet ones are the ones I know have been through the worst because they can’t bring themselves to talk about it. They are the ones I have more in common with. I’ve only been able to talk so openly about everything in my past this year. Turning 40 has been good for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve never really thought about it that way, but it makes sense. Even though my super fertile friends can’t really relate to what to means to be going through infertility there are some who are more empathetic and try. They listen and try to support which goes a long way. Of course only someone who has gone through the same experience truly gets it but all people have experienced some sort of grief and pain in their lives so should be able to empathize when someone else is in pain.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a very intesting point. I agree.

      I think we all have the ability to empathize, but I think a lot of people are afraid to.

      I feel like a lot of people try to cut themselves and protect themselves from others pain. They build an online world that shields them. They run away from it or try to disconnect themselves from it.

      Sometimes sympathy feels nice (i.e #mygoldfishdied). But it doesn’t bring us a sense of connection to others the way empathy can.


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