Empathy And Sympathy Are Not The Same

Many people use empathy and sympathy interchangeably, but there distant differences between the two actions

Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.
4 min readJan 29, 2021
Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

Empathy and sympathy are not the same thing but are often confused.

To be able to show true empathy and sympathy, it’s really important to know the difference between empathy and sympathy first.

Empathy Defined:

By definition, empathy is a neurologically propelled component of the brain that is cognitively and affectively established which promotes emotional and social awareness and skills within a person.

The feelings of empathy are neurologically rooted in the human beings’ anterior insula and subgenual anterior cingulate cortex of the brain. Empathy is the capacity to vicariously experience and understand another human being`s feelings which trigger prosocial behaviors.

Empathy involves compassion through a shared experience and they want to alleviate suffering through a sharing of emotions and is one of the motivators of altruism.

Sympathy and Empathy:

Often compared with sympathy, which deals with distress at another`s plight and often has condescending overtones and can be denoted by a sense of wishing to see another happier and does not avoid a shared experience.

Empathy differs from sympathy as it requires a greater ability to relate to another person or being able to take his or her perspective.
Further research into empathy is welcomed.

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Empathy and the Mind:

Empathy encompasses cognitive, affective, and behavioural components.

There are at least eight various psychological forms of empathy that a person may feel when hearing of a friend who is about to lose their job or have something negative happen to them. Examples of this may be of knowing another person`s internal emotional feelings, one can be said to be cognitively empathetic by adopting a “facial empathy” or a type of “ motor mimicry”.

This allows for a person to communicate their shared feelings with another affected person.

The Ability To Show Empathy:

The human brain’s intrinsic activities are concerned with the overall relative empathic ability (REA).

A healthy adult has mature emotional and social cognition that progresses their feelings of being statically empathetic to another towards the knowing of being both affectively and cognitively empathetic to others` situations and issues. Being generous in empathetic ways can motivate imitation of other people`s behaviors. Yet there is a wide breadth of pro-social conformity in this regard.

It can motivate a person to actively help another person who is in need of help but conversely, this action may be to take care of a person within a specific group, and in acting empathetically, it may, in turn, exclude other people and therefore this can threaten the fundamental principle of helping another morally.

In effect, this begins to explain the complex relationship that empathy and morality

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Social Empathy:

Social empathy involves both static and active empathy.

Static empathy is emotionally understanding, in an unsympathetic manner, where a person is coming from within their given situation. Active empathy is doing something about the situation at hand.

By showing empathy in a social way, it has positive outcomes on personal development, interpersonal relationships, and the well-being of society. In defining social empathy it is important to have an explicitly multi-dimensional approach to the subject. Author Stoland in 1969 stated that it allows for the observer to react emotionally as they perceive what the other is experiencing.

In the same year, Wispe was commented on by Hogan who noted that the observer must construct for oneself another person`s mental status.

Once constructed affective or emotive reactions must be employed. With yet another author Balkanize in mind Mark H. Davis notes that this type of empathy is:

“ … broadly defined as a set of constructs having to do with the responses of one individual to the experiences of another.” -(Davis, 2018).

Social empathy can also be defined as:

“Social empathy is the ability to understand people by perceiving or experiencing their life situations and as a result gain insight into structural inequalities and disparities.” — (Segal, Wagaman, & Gerdes, 2012)

Empathy is both a combination of cognitive and psychological traits that many who work in social work can be in danger of burning out due to the nature of their work.

The importance though of such empathy is pertinent in such a profession and needs to be constantly educated through the use of correct training measures in these professionals’ lives.

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Growth and Developing Empathy:

Educators in schools who have empathy can teach this behavior to young people and this, in turn, aids greater morality.

A healthy developing human brain is continually socially maturing and continuing to develop the ability to empathize. With experience and emotional maturity, the human brain continues to create social structures. Self-compassion and empathy are connected to mindfulness which is a basis for stress reduction in the human mind.

Empathy and compassion are different as empathy involve one person Experiencing the same emotion as someone else, whereas compassion acts on resilience and well-being in an altruistic fashion.

Once the differences of empathy and sympathy are understood, a person can show both and improve their human connection over the long term.

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Dr. Conor Hogan Ph.D.

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