Sympathy vs. Empathy

Receiving the News

The end of my senior year in high school was filled with some of the most eventful weeks of my life, not all those events being positive. I had prom coming up at the same time as my volleyball senior night, and most of my classes were beginning to wrap up as we started all the senior activities. I was enjoying the last few weeks with my volleyball clique before we all went our separate ways off to college. One day, I was in my backyard with a few of my teammates relaxing, when my sister came outside and told me my grandfather had passed away. Naturally, I left the scene to console my mother who was devastated at the loss of her father, and to get away from my friends who I didn’t want to force into an awkward situation by seeing me react to such news.


Throughout the next few weeks, I tried to keep this information to myself as much as possible, because I didn’t want to draw any unwanted attention to myself at school. I had very few conversations about this event with my peers, but the most effective one I had was with my coach. He was already aware of the situation because I’d emailed him about missing that weekend’s game to attend the funeral. When I came into practice the next week, he talked to me in private, and essentially said he knew there was nothing he could say to ease the situation significantly, but if I needed to step outside for a moment during the practice for whatever reason, to do so. I’m not the type of person to share the issues going on in my personal life with most people, so having someone tell me to act as I needed to, without having to share any details was very fortunate. Neither my coach, nor any of my friends tried to say anything along the lines of “you’ll feel better soon.” Distance was especially critical in this situation. Acknowledging that something bad happened is okay, but trying too hard to make someone feel better by pointing out the silver linings or less bad parts of a situation doesn’t allow them to heal.

Two Responses

In a Wall Street Journal Article about empathy, the author discusses the main two responses that people have when they are exposed to other people’s emotions. The first way is seeing themselves as a source of comfort, and the second way is feeling uncomfortable seeing this side of a person and instead focusing on themselves. One of the main reasons some people may feel uncomfortable expressing emotion, especially in a case dealing with death, is because many people are use to coping with their serious problems by themselves. Another reason they may not be inclined to open up is because they don’t want to put the pressure on someone else making them feel obligated to provide them with comfort.

The difference between receiving empathy from someone and sympathy, is that when people are sympathetic, they are trying to look on the bright side of a situation or make it seem better, whereas empathetic people will not just try to make the situation seem better with words, they will offer comfort and acknowledge what happened, by being present and knowing that sometimes the only thing that can allow a person to heal is time.




Sympathy doesn’t require as deep of a connection with someone in order to be established in the way that empathy does. To empathize with someone, one must put their feet in the other person’s shoes and try to understand how they’re feeling. When I was a younger kid, I remember hearing the expression “I feel sorry for you” a lot more often compared to when I was entering adulthood. This is because kids often don’t realize that saying “I feel sorry for you,” does nothing to help someone feel better because it doesn’t make the listener seem like they genuinely care.


Addressing the Issue

In an article on the site Everplans, the author gives examples of what to say and what not to say to someone who is grieving, as well as explanations for each phrase. Although the article is about how to express sympathy, some of the responses can be considered empathetic. One of the responses was about meeting up with the person who lost a loved one and getting to know more about said individual. This is a great way to put one’s self in another person’s shoes by trying to understand the things that their missing from their loved one now that they’re gone.


3 thoughts on “Sympathy vs. Empathy

  1. I can completely relate to having a bad experience and wanting to have people empathize with you with out having to give away any information. I think there is a lot to be said about someone who can say I am sorry you are hurting, Im here for you if you need me.

  2. It sounds like you had some pretty great people to help you through that difficult time. My Grandpa passed away three years ago on the 12th. I remember finding out and it was incredibly difficult. It’s nice that your coach was so understanding because sometimes reality sets in all over again and you do just need a moment. It does make all the difference when people are empathetic to your situation rather than sympathetic. I think empathy gives you time to heal and go through all of your emotions where as sympathy is basically saying get over it. I hope you were able to heal however you needed to, and let me know if you ever need someone to talk to.

  3. Loved this post! I enjoyed how the content connected to the supporting material you provide here. I have never really experienced a loss in my family but I am guessing it was a tough situation for you. Having a coach and teammates being understanding of the situation and allowing you space seemed to be the best for you to cope with your loss. Sometimes people just being in your corner when you get knocked down is all the help you need.

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