What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Both terms deal with understanding emotions, but from different perspectives

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, so what better time to brush up on some commonly used terms? Most people know that empathy and sympathy involve understanding other people’s emotions and experiences, but many aren’t quite sure what the difference is between the two.

And with the CDC reporting that more than 1 in 5 U.S. adults live with a mental illness, learning to understand others’ emotions has never been more important.


Put simply, sympathy is the ability to have feelings of concern or compassion due to someone else’s suffering.

Sympathy allows you to connect with someone, but generally only on a surface level. After all, it can be difficult or even impossible to truly understand how someone else is experiencing the world. Better Up, a site devoted to helping people live “with greater clarity, purpose, and passion,” describes sympathy as:

  • Having thoughts about what someone feels
  • Understanding people’s problems only from your own perspective
  • Ignoring or suppressing your own emotions

“A sympathetic approach only provides a surface-level understanding of someone else’s situation. This understanding is typically from your perspective, not theirs,” explained Better Up.


Empathy, on the other hand, “is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place,” according to Very Well Mind.

A good example of empathy is when a friend or loved one loses someone, and you can put yourself in their shoes, going through the same experience emotionally as the other person.

Qualities of empathy include:

  • Feeling what someone else feels, often by referencing one’s own similar experiences
  • Understanding another person’s perspective
  • Acknowledging everyone’s feelings

According to Better Up, “Practicing empathy, instead of sympathy only, can help you get the emotional clarity you need to build upon important relationships. It can let you see another point of view.”