Empathy vs. Sympathy


Se Kwon, Opinion Writer

I think it is important to understand the difference between empathy and sympathy. One of my friends, who is a fellow student here at UND, suggested the video “Brené Brown on Empathy” and it talks about how different empathy and sympathy are. The old saying, “you learn something new every day” holds true. I learned something new about sympathy vs. empathy from this video.


Sympathy and empathy have many similarities, however, empathy is all about taking that extra step. In the video, Brown described that empathy is a “vulnerable choice.” Empathy is going that extra mile, finding a connection with either the situation or people involved and putting yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is more about just understanding one’s feelings instead of putting yourself in their shoes. Brown stated in the video, “what makes something better is a connection.” Think about that for a minute. To have good any good relationships whether that’s amongst your family, friends, partner, etc. a connection is needed. A simple connection is what makes relationships personal and real.


If someone were to be dealing with a loss of someone or grief, an empathetic example would be: “I feel your pain.” “I understand you.” “I am here for you.” An example of sympathy would be something like, “at least you got to say goodbye” or “you still have friends and family to support you.” I think the biggest thing about being sympathetic is that people tend to do it without realizing. I think that people who sympathize mean well, however, sometimes a sympathetic response may not sit well with the person grieving.


I can share from personal experience- I lost my mom when I was a junior in high school. Many people were sincere towards my family, but I remember hearing things like, “if it makes you feel better…” or “at least you still have…” or “yeah that’s sad.” I fully understand that people were trying to express their condolences, but it was hard to hear. I think that truly digging deep to find a connection to relate with someone is how best to approach a negative situation. A simple, “I feel your pain.” “I have faith in you.” or “you’re doing great, I understand how hard this is for you.” or even a simple, “I’m here for you.” When someone finds that connection and feels your pain, it encourages you and gives you hope, at least it did for me.


Next time you realize someone you have a connection with needs words of encouragement or affirmation think about your approach.  Think about taking that extra mile to really understand what they’re going through and put yourself in their shoes. Remember this- words don’t mean anything unless actions back them. If you say you’ll be there for someone, you should always be there for them. Check up on your friends, family, and peers. Everyone experiences hardships, even the people who seem to be happy all the time.


Check out the Brené Brown video here: “Brené Brown on Empathy” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw