The difference between empathy and sympathy

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Life & Death Matters Post

Have a look at this excellent three minute video with Brene Brown talking about the difference between empathy and sympathy.

I love the animation and the message about empathy.  Some lovely comments on what empathy is and what it is not, and illustrates a few ways to support someone in an empathetic way. Beautiful.

In defense of the many people who have not been part of the discussions about the difference between sympathy and empathy I want to add a thought to this discussion.

Over the past 20+ years people have participated in this discussion of the difference between empathy and sympathy. Most of the time people describe what they define as sympathy, and describe the less than helpful behaviours that apparently go with sympathy “I know just how you feel…” “It could have been worse”etc…  In these discussions, sympathy is portrayed as being less than wonderful, less than empathy, and less than kind.

Meanwhile, for the last 20 years, I have heard people who do not know this discussion, do not share in the academic study of words, use the term sympathy in a way that is more than good, more than kind, and more than an attempt to fix and gloss over a problem.

The defines sympathy as “the fact or power of sharing the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble; fellow feeling, compassion, or commiseration.”

So, all this to say…let us learn to be empathetic as Brene Brown describes, and let’s also remember that there are people in the world who use the word sympathy to describe what Brene describes as empathy.

And in my own life, as I rub shoulders with those who demonstrate incredible kindness and support and warmth and humanity… and whether they call it sympathy or empathy… I hope I can learn from them!

Have a wonderful sunny day!


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Courtney Murrell is a PSW who works in hospice palliative care.

When she is not at work, she is spending time with her family, going on hikes or writing. Courtney is a lifelong learner and loves to share her passion for writing as a wellness practice.

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