On your walk to work, you notice a man napping on a park bench. He’s wrapped tightly in a torn, flimsy blanket. His boots appear to be in their last wearable days. And aside from what is on his person, he has one lone empty water bottle sitting by his side. Concluding he’s homeless, you feel a wave of sadness rush over you. You tuck a couple dollars under his water bottle and as you walk away, wish you could do more to help his predicament—you wish he was better off, that he at least had a warm place to sleep.

Another person walks by the homeless man shortly after you do. After making the same observations, she leaves a few dollars as well, only they’re accompanied by a note. In the note, she details her own time spent on the streets. She tells the man that she knows exactly what he’s going through and encourages him to remain strong through the tough times she knows he’s experiencing. The woman then walks hurriedly away, despite the tears blurring her vision.

Both you and the woman felt pain for the homeless man that you passed on the street. Your hearts went out to him and even drove the both of you to give him some cash, in hopes of helping out, if even just a little. But there was actually a big difference in the emotions the two of you experienced: you felt sympathy, while she felt empathy. We often use the words empathy and sympathy interchangeably, but they don’t quite have the same meaning. However, they do sound the same and they’re similar in meaning, so no shame on you. Still, it is important to distinguish between the two and really mean what you’re saying.

Understanding Sympathy

When you feel sympathy, you feel bad or concerned for someone. For example, when you walked by that homeless man on the bench, a wave of sadness rushed over you. You could only imagine what he was going through and wished that he wasn’t in that unfortunate situation. Here are a couple other examples of feeling sympathy:

  • You just found out that your friend’s grandfather died. They had a very close relationship and you know she’s really hurting. You haven’t had to experience the loss of a loved one yet, but your heart aches for her.
  • The table next to you at dinner is being awfully rude to the server. Not only are they demanding but loud and obnoxious. When they’re finally done, they don’t leave anything extra for their waiter. You feel bad that he had to put with that and wonder how many people treat him that way each day on the job.
  • It’s the championship game. The score is tied 4-4 and the teams are evenly matched, but there can only be one winner. Just 10 seconds before the last half is up, the green team sends the ball sailing into the upper right corner of the net—they’ve won. You watch as the other team’s players fall to their knees, with their head in their hands. While you’re happy for the team that won, you can’t help but feel bad for the team that lost. It must be difficult to come so far, just to lose in the last 10 seconds of the championship game.

…And It’s Good Friend, Empathy

Empathy is a different side of the same coin—it’s not only feeling bad but understanding and even sharing the emotions of that person. You’re able to relate to how they’re feeling. The woman that noticed the homeless man was empathetic, in that she knew exactly what it was like to be homeless and shared the man’s despair. Here are a couple other examples of feeling empathy:

  • Your brother just graduated from college and moved to a different city upon accepting a job offer. While he loves the area, he hasn’t found a lot of meaning in his job yet and is at a loss for what to do: stick it out a little while or find a different one. You’re taken back to your first move and job after college. You feel bad that he’s having these opposing feelings pulling him in different directions, but assure him it will all work out the way it’s supposed to.
  • Today at work is the pitch meeting. Everybody comes ready with a couple project pitches and takes turns sharing them with the rest of the cohort. When it’s the new employee’s turn, she freezes up and completely forgets her ideas. In effect, her face turns red and her voice gets dry. You’ve never been the best at public speaking either, so you understand exactly what she’s experiencing and feel bad that she is embarrassed.
  • Your best friend and her boyfriend of three years have just broken up. She calls you crying, claiming she doesn’t know how to go on. You think back to your own recent breakup and how it completely tore you up. After expressing how sorry you are, you give her all of the advice you can think of that helped you. You worry about her for the rest of the night.