The Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

What is sympathy? What is empathy? Is one better than the other? Why is the difference important?

December 2020
Abdul-Rahman Abbas (Co-Founder)
UCL - 5th Year Medical Student

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A good understanding of the differences between sympathy and empathy is key when it comes to the medical school application process. It'll aid you during work experience, personal statement writing and interview preparation.

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What is sympathy?

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In plain words, it's the ability to 'feel bad for someone'.

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Sympathy is about your perception and reaction to the distress or need of someone else. It's your ability to share their feelings and feel sorrow.

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A good example of sympathy is when a friend's family member passes away. Sympathy is the sadness we feel for the friend facing a difficult situation.

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What is empathy?

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In plain words, it's the ability to 'put yourself in someone else's shoes'.

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Empathy generally requires more 'work' than sympathy. The best way I like to think of empathy is by thinking about my capacity to truly imagine and understand what someone else is going through.

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It's subtle, but there's a difference between feeling sorry for someone (sympathy) and understanding that pain as if you were going through it (empathy).

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How empathy is different from sympathy?

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Sympathy is largely felt from the third person perspective (i.e. you largely see the person in difficulty as a separate entity). You aren't necessarily able to understand or imagine what situation that person may be going through (unlike empathy), but you are able to feel sorry for them.

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Naturally, you're more likely to have the capacity to empathise well with someone who is going through a situation that you've previously experienced (e.g. a mild example would be empathising with someone in pain that's just stepped on a lego!).

That feeling of understanding the pain of the situation (i.e. the cause) rather than just acknowledging the feelings the person may be having as a result is how I like to differentiate them.

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On the other hand, it's unlikely that you'll be able to 'empathise' really well with a hungry child in a 3rd world (developing) country. You've most likely never been in that situation. However, you can try by developing the 'tools' needed to better understand how it must be in that situation.

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Why do you need to know the difference?

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Sympathy and particularly empathy are two key attributes that are often searched for in future potential doctor during the medical school admission stage. This has been outlined by the medical schools council (MSC).

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Therefore, a good understanding can help you write a more powerful and reflective personal statement. In addition, the theme of sympathy and empathy commonly feature within panel and MMI medical school interviews, sometimes as an explicit question (as we will see below).

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Applicants who display empathy show good indications that they will be able to provide a type of care that is based on respect and trust (since you understand how they are and appreciate how they must feel on a much deeper level).

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Examples of empathy questions at interview:

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  1. What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?
  2. Do you think empathy is important?
  3. Can you tell us about a situation where you've had to empathise with another person?
  4. Why do you think empathy is an important quality in a doctor?

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What is a good example of empathy?

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Imagine you are a student and a friend in your class has just performed poorly in an important end-of-year exam. Your friend is distraught because she studied really hard and still didn't achieve her desired grades. Even though you got a good grades on this exam, you remember back to the year before and how you underperformed despite working really hard too. You don't try to fix things for your friend but you do say, "I'm so, so sorry about your grade. I know how hard you studied for the exam and how disappointed you must feel."

It's important to note that 'empathy' isn't just what you say back. It's about your ability to understand their situation and that can often be communicated in non-verbal ways.

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What is the opposite of empathy?

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Apathy: the lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern for another.

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Often it's helpful to consider opposites to better understand the definitions and meanings behind a specific term. Although apathy is not a true opposite of empathy (as empathy is not a polar emotion), it generally serves as a decent guide to help us better understand empathy.

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However, there is one small difference I would add. Empathy describes a skill (i.e. the ability to do something). Therefore, the opposite of empathy is more about the inability (i.e. lack of skill) to stand in someone else's shoes rather than simply lacking interest or concern for another person.

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Is sympathy or empathy better?

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Empathy is often considered a 'better' skill than sympathy.

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Whilst this is a rather simplistic view point (both skills are generally important in humans, particularly those going into the healthcare field), empathy not only provides you with the ability to sense someone else's emotions (i.e. their sadness), it's also the ability to imagine and understand their concerns and feelings.

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When you're more in touch with the situation (rather than simply feeling sorry for them), you're usually in a better situation to understand that person's (or patient's) needs and therefore better able to provide superior care.

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Importantly, effective empathy can often allow patients to feel as if they've 'unburdened' themselves of a huge weight on their shoulders. This can often be hugely therapeutic for them in it's own right!

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Example of when you might need to show empathy in your interview

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Many medical schools have an MMI interview process. During one of these stations, it's common for a candidate to be placed in an acting scenario where they are faced with a distraught or angry ย customer or patient and asked to deal with them.

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For example, you may be asked to deal with an angry customer whose booked a 10-seat table for a birthday party at a busy high-end restaurant months in advance, even though on arrival only a 4-person table has been booked on the system and is available to them.

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Empathy is key when handling situations like these!

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Whilst many of these scenarios are not medical, they do draw upon very similar skills required from doctors, including empathy. Therefore, practicing the ability to empathise in difficult situations like this can be extremely helpful.

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Here, the key would be to understand how angry this patient must feel considering the amount of preparation they've made for such an important event. Therefore, it's important to convey that clearly to the patient verbally but also non-verbally by working with them to help solve the situation and find an alternative.

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How do you show empathy?

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Practice! Practice makes perfect. Also, experience.

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Whilst it's largely not a skill you simply 'train' yourself to do, it is helpful to know what empathy involves on a more practical sense and then try and practice it (perhaps role play with friends or siblings). However, the reality is that you'll best improve your ability to empathise with experience.

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Empathy is best felt when someone is going through something you've also experienced before. Therefore, I find one of the most effective ways of trying to empathise with someone is by imagining myself going through that exact same situation. Essentially, pretending that I've gone through it before myself so I can better understand how this person is currently feeling.

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For example, I may imagine myself receiving bad news (e.g. a cancer diagnosis).

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Here are the steps I go through:

  1. Play the scenario in your head - how would I feel after being told this?
  2. What are my main concerns - what are the immediate thoughts that go through my head after?
  3. Put it into the context of my patient - my concerns may be different from the patient's, despite the same scenario. What are they likely to be worried about?
  4. Discuss these concerns - let them know that you acknowledge their feelings and their concerns. Work through them with them.
  5. Understand and discuss the specific causes of these concerns - where appropriate, delve deeper into the core 'reasons' behind the feelings they have.
  6. If unsure, ask your patient! - 'what are you most concerned about right now?' is a question we sometimes ask (if appropriate)

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Another handy question we sometimes like to ask patients is 'if we could make one thing magically disappear, what would it be?'. This often gets to the heart of issues. By understanding the patient's main feelings and concerns, you're much better able to focus on them and help them out in a meaningful way. Very often, you'll find that the issue expressed by the patient is not the issue you thought they'd be most concerned or upset about. This ties into 'patient-centred care' too.

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In summary, you're essentially building a story in your head. You're trying to 'relive' the scenario and imagine how it must feel. Then you're ย putting it into the context of your patient. Finally, you're acknowledging it verbally & non-verbally and discussing it with them.

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NB: This is by no means a fool-proof way of empathising. The real skill of empathy needs years of experience and work - something you'll develop further over time as a medical student and junior doctor. However, hopefully this can get you started!

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