Empathy vs Sympathy

Instructor: Emily Cummins
In this lesson, we'll talk about the difference between two words that are often confused in our everyday language: sympathy and empathy. We'll talk about how the psychologist Carl Rogers distinguished empathy from sympathy in psychotherapy.

Sympathy and Empathy

What happens when your friend is going through a hard time? Do you express sadness and hope that things get better for her soon? Do you put yourself in her shoes, sharing her feelings of distress?

There might seem to be very little difference between these two responses to your friend's situation, but these responses are actually two different emotions. When you express sincere concern about your friend and genuinely hope she feels better, you are expressing sympathy, as in the first response. When you really try and put yourself in her position, even feeling some of her distress, you are expressing empathy, like in the second response. Think of empathy as a step above sympathy.

Sympathy and empathy are important emotions in friendships, communication, and all kinds of social relationships. Let's talk a little bit more in depth about these now.

Psychology and Emotions

The psychologist Carl Rogers is credited with the development of humanist psychology and he wrote specifically about the importance of empathy in patient care. His approach is known as a person-centered approach. Rogers believed that expressing empathy was critical to really understanding another person. In other words, we need to do more than listen to another person.

Imagine if you're a psychotherapist and a patient is telling you about a difficult time in his or her life. According to Carl Rogers, you don't want to simply react to this patient's feelings. You want to try and understand this patient's inner world.

Understanding the inner world of a client is not always an easy task. Rogers suggests that therapists need to do more than simply reflect what a patient says back to the patient. Empathy is key to really being able to do this.

Why Empathy?

It may still seem like these responses are quite similar. Let's talk a little bit about why empathy is really important in our social relations.

According to Rogers, sympathy can seem a little bit judgmental. As humans, we sometimes have a natural tendency to judge others. So expressing sympathy can seem like saying, 'I feel sorry for you.' But expressing empathy feels more like, I understand what you are going through, how can I help you?'

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