crop psychologist supporting patient during counseling indoors

The Power of Sympathy and Empathy

Sympathy gets a bad rap. Often, it’s considered the lesser of its twin, empathy. However, both have their uses and knowing the difference can help you access their unique powers.

Each allows one human being to understand another, but what differs is the basis of that connection:

  1. To sympathise with someone is to share their experience, pulling upon your own reference point to relate to theirs. You can understand, because you have been through something similar.
  2. To empathise with someone is to see their experience from their perspective — or ‘put yourself in their shoes’ as the adage goes. You can understand because you have paid attention to their experience.


Say you go to a gig with a friend. At the end, you turn to your friend to say how brilliant you thought the show was. To your surprise, they tell you they hated it. Have you ever been to a gig and hated it? Then you can sympathise. Have you ever been to a gig you hated with someone else who loved it? Well, then you can really sympathise.

Say you were to then ask your friend what it was about the gig they didn’t like until you understood how the same experience could be seen differently. Then you would be empathising. You would be understanding their viewpoint as equally valid, though separate from your own. You wouldn’t agree, but you would understand.

The Power of Empathy

Many people say, “If you haven’t been through it, you’ll never understand.” What they mean is, you cannot sympathise, but you may be able to empathise.

All of us live in our own worlds, experiencing our own reality, separate from everyone else’s. The power of empathy is that it helps us realise our story can make sense to someone else. Empathy shows us that we are not ‘wrong’ to feel as we do, even if others don’t feel the same. It can help you feel heard and seen, which are fundamental human needs. Too often, we feel ignored, overlooked or misrepresented. Empathy cuts through this and puts a spotlight on the individual, saying “No wonder you felt so bad,” “I’d feel the same if I were you,” “It’s not your fault.”

Unlike sympathy, empathy has the power to bring people together despite their differences. You may not have experienced divorce or the loss of a child, but you can understand someone else’s experience of it. You may not agree with someone’s life choices or culture, but you can understand what they mean to them. You can recognise someone as a whole human being, living their own life based on their own values and history, outside of yours.

Therapists use empathy in order to remove themselves from the therapeutic process. “This conversation is not about me,” they may say. “It’s about you.” Any assumptions can cloud a therapist’s judgement, causing the patient to feel misunderstood and alone. For this reason, empathy is often championed. However, sometimes what we want — no, need — is to know that others feel the same too.

The Power of Sympathy

Sympathy binds us in ways we take for granted every day. We assume a shared experience with our neighbours, compatriots and peers, all built on its power.

From the first session, attendees of a therapy group for substance misuse can sympathise with each other, having shared similar experiences. This creates a sense of inclusion, acceptance and unity, which is often essential for those same individuals to feel willing to share their personal stories. In this way, sympathy can be the first step to empathy, by offering a foundation of trust and familiarity.

Realising that other people have been through their own versions of our difficulties can offer great benefit. We may realise that our situation could have been different, whether better or worse. We may see ourselves as “one of many,” experiencing a certain shared humanity through the experience itself. We all belong to groups of others who have had the same experiences and realising this can help us feel less alone.

Have you ever felt your partner, friend or parent was “acting like your therapist”? That’s probably because they were showing empathy when you wanted sympathy. Misusing empathy can make someone feel upset or angry, because it suggests their perspective is just “their perspective,” not the truth. Sympathy, on the other hand, says “We’re in this together,” “I feel it too.”

Sympathy can break a boundary for therapists, making the patient feel they share a personal connection. However, if you’re speaking to someone you care about, you may want them to feel that way — and they may want to too. What’s more, telling someone how you got through a similar ordeal might help them get through theirs.

Harnessing the Power

The next time someone you know is struggling, you can go about it in one of two ways:

  1. To be sympathetic: lead by example. Describe a time when you had a similar experience, explaining how it made you feel and what it was like. This may make them feel more comfortable sharing their experience — levelling the playing field, so to speak. Hearing your story may also help them to make sense of theirs.
  2. To be empathetic: remove yourself from the equation and seek to understand their experience on its own terms. With open questions like “How did you feel?” and “What was that like?” Get closer to their narrative until it’s like you’re sitting side by side. Being able to tell their story without any edits may make them feel comfort and relief.

Sympathy and empathy are both powerful tools for connection. You do not have to put one above the other. Instead, ask what the other person wants in that moment — to hear about you or talk about them. There is no wrong answer, only unasked questions.

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