Aren’t empathy and sympathy the same thing? They’re close cousins but definitely not identical. They both have to do with making a connection with someone else. You recognize that someone is in a situation which is less than favorable.

In both situations, you might feel pity for that person. The difference is that sympathy doesn’t lead to understanding. Let’s make the difference between sympathy and empathy a little clearer by looking at a possible situation you might encounter.

Empathy, Sympathy and the Homeless Person

Homelessness is a problem in the wealthiest countries in the world. You may have encountered a homeless person yourself. A stream of emotions can begin flowing when you see someone in this situation.

Harsh, mean-spirited people might say, “Why doesn’t he get a job?” Most people will respond with more positive emotions. Still others won’t be driven to feel anything for that person’s plight.

Sympathy is an obvious response. You feel sympathetic. You feel pity for that person. You might not have ever been homeless yourself. Let’s hope that’s something you’ll never experience.

Even so, you know that living on the streets is difficult. Never knowing where your next meal is coming from and whether you’ll have a roof over your head at night is a tough situation. You’re sympathetic. You might give that person a few dollars or even offer to pay for lodgings and a meal.

That’s sympathy.

The empathetic person understands what the homeless person is going through mentally and emotionally. It’s as if empathy allows someone to enter the mind and the heart of another human being. You share that person’s perspective. This is sometimes because you’ve also experienced the same situation, but that’s not always necessary.

Empathy Can Cause a Similar Response

In the example we just discussed, both sympathy and empathy can lead to a good deed. You want to help the person you see going through a tough time. One thing that empathy sometimes does is create an almost physical response in the empathetic person.

You’re at a friend’s house. You’re talking to him while he’s dicing some vegetables. He slips and cuts his hand. Emotional empathy can be so strong that you actually cringe. You grab your hand as if you were the one that was cut, and you may even scream out as if you’ve experienced the pain he’s going through.

This doesn’t happen with sympathy.

A sympathetic person will still feel poorly that his friend has cut his hand. Sympathy might make you rush to his aid. You ask him where he has a first aid kit in his home and you get to work to provide assistance.

In many cases sympathy and empathy are similar. However, the sympathetic person doesn’t truly understand and experience the situation someone else is going through. This is what happens with an empathetic person. They adopt the mindset and emotions of someone in a tough situation and feel compelled to provide assistance.