Am I Experiencing Empathy or Sympathy?

What is your go to reaction when an individual is experiencing distress or needs? As people, our reactions can vary. One person’s response might be to sit and feel the emotions, while other’s might be to offer immediate condolences. But what is the name of these reactions?  Am I experiencing empathy or sympathy? Both are reactions that we experience, due to another person’s distress or needs. While empathy and sympathy sound similar, they have distinct differences. 

Defining Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy refers to emotionally understanding what other people are feeling and experiencing, while seeing their point of view. In contrast, sympathy refers to  feelings of pity or sorrow, or a sense of compassion for another person’s misfortune. Sympathy can be accompanied by relief of not experiencing what the other person is feeling or going through, while expressing concern due for another person.

It’s normal for sympathy to be a go to response, when another person is in distress. However, sympathy is accompanied with potential for blockages in connection, regarding shared human experiences. Inappropriate use of sympathy can lead to invalidation of another person’s experience and emotions, as well as sense of belittlement. Due to the passive nature of sympathy, it can be harmful to emotionally intimate relationships. This is due to sympathy’s ability to invoke a sense of isolation and lost connection, in the receiving individual. 

When is Sympathy Appropriate?

Now sympathy is not always an inappropriate response. Sympathy still has the ability to convey caring for another person. When an individual increases their mindfulness, to avoid pity, sympathy can appropriately convey concern. There may be settings in which sympathy is appropriate. Hardships can affect anyone, and sympathy can be used in non emotionally intimate situations and relationships. Immediate needs of an individual can be identified, through the use of sympathy, even when emotional needs are not directly being addressed. 

When is Empathy Appropriate?

When empathy is at the forefront, there are several benefits. Empathy, in its own right, invokes connection in shared human experiences. Empathy can be taken a step further, by imagining yourself in an individual’s situation. A hallmark of empathy is feeling their emotions as if they are your own. Empathy is one of the ultimate acts of compassion; feeling with another person. 

While there are many positives to empathy, it can still be accompanied by its own set of challenges. Common difficulties when expressing empathy are generally related to an individual’s emotional and energetic boundaries. When feeling emotions with another person, it’s important to identify which is yours and which emotions are theirs to carry. Lack of boundaries with one’s empathy can lead to compassion fatigue and emotional dysregulation. 

If empathy isn’t your go to response, it’s okay! We are all human, and have our natural reactions to other’s distress and challenging situations. Empathy can be built. You can start by the practice of imagining yourself in another person’s situation. Active listening can aid in the building of empathy, by conveying understanding and attention to a person’s experience. At the core, empathy is a non-judgemental approach. Take a moment to think about what you have likely experienced, both mentally and emotionally. It’s okay to offer different perspectives, while identifying your own emotions experienced. It is beneficial to do this with openness to their experience as well. 

If you are in need of assistance, please reach out. You can give us a call at 832-352-1600 or you can contact us through our website at We are here to help!


Kaitlyn DeLeon, LPC

Kaitlyn DeLeon, LPC

Scroll to Top