Sympathy vs Empathy

Sympathy vs Empathy

When I was in Nursing School, there was an ongoing debate between the concepts of Empathy and Sympathy. My youthful understanding and subsequent belief was a that sympathy equates to compassion. As a hospice nurse, compassion is at the tippy top of the patient care plan.

Many people argued (and at the time, I agreed) that empathy is the ability to feel what another person feels. I never thought that it was possible (to actually feel exactly what someone else feels). And I still don’t. Well, the truth of the matter is that I was operating under false assumptions (you know what assuming does!).

My older and wiser self has changed my tune and perspective. This perspective transformation happened when I watched Brené Brown‘s short video (below) describing the difference between the two. She says that empathy is “feeling with people.” I like the sound of that. And I get it. Completely.

Brené Brown goes on to describe difference between sympathy and empathy beautifully:

Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.

According to Brené, empathy is saying, “I know what it’s like down here and you’re not alone.”

Well, I know firsthand (and from you, dear readers) that the people who have been in the bottomless pit of chemo despair or stuck on Isolation Island most certainly have empathy for those who follow them to either destination. After all, many of us certainly know what it’s like AND are motivated to assure others that they are not alone.

Sympathetic responses on the other hand begin with “At Least…” and are a futile attempt to make things better. For example,

“I was just diagnosed with breast cancer”

Sympathetic response: “At least you will have perky breasts after your mastectomy and reconstruction.” (Many people said this to me and it didn’t help!)

The most effective – and sympathetic! – responses were from people who said, “Wow. That really sucks. I’ll be here for you anytime you need me to do anything.”

Brené calls this “silver lining” something (as in a verb). While I support her comparison of empathy and sympathy (and have converted into an empathic believer!), I have to take issue with her use of Silver Lining.

When I talk about Silver Linings it is not in a Pollyanna-ish way, e.g., “If you look for the Silver Lining, everything will be fiiiiiiine.”  Not. At. All. I have never (and would never!) suggest that looking for Silver Linings in any way negates the very real and very important feelings of sadness or anger or despair that can be a part of any life challenge or even tragedy. Rather, Silver Linings provide balance and perspective to help get through some of the darkest of days.

The video below is engaging and thought provoking. I’d love to hear your responses to it!

Leave a comment


  1. Mary Watson says

    As a counselor and fellow survivor…empathy is the gift our friends give us when they get in the hole and simply sit with us…

    Isn't God good? He brings such treasures from those deep, dark places…
    Thank you – you have a special gift and I am grateful that you are sharing it…

  2. Maureen OB says

    What a concise way of describing the ability of those who reach out. So many people are uncomfortable with cancer diagnosis and it is clearly in "sympathetic " (?!) careless comments like "at least you are half way done- I just finished 8 weeks oF. AC hell with all the side effects. You look so good is another comment that makes me want to smack somebody. I have no hair, loosing nails, and SEVERE GERDS and by saying I look good eases their minds. It is uplifting to get that empathetic ear or hug that says I'm listening….. Go ahead and cry, moan, groan, it's okay. You have every right to… Someone who waked our path told me to schedule my "pity parties" and to call her so she can share. That validates my feelings, limits the time for self pity and gives me time to share. Empathy. Is a gift to someone who is hurting whatever the reason .. Bless you, Hollye, for always finding a way to help so many like me with FBC.

  3. Joan Aldrich says

    Dear Hollye,

    Beautiful post, it makes you really "get it". Today was a fabulous day only to be brightened more by the arrival of my 805 magazine and opening and a seeing your
    beautiful smile and article. I will order my book right now !! Or shall I wait for the CC Club ??

    Hearts love,

    • silverpen says

      Oh how fun, Joanie! Thank you!
      How about if you order yours now and bring it to the CC club for signing? :)
      Thanks, again!

  4. E.B. says

    Great post and God bless you, Miss Holly. When my Mom was diagnosed, every time someone would say "Well, at least …" I wanted to smack them.

  5. says

    Wow oh wow, thank you Hollye. Powerful and empowering. Much as we'd like, we simply cannot always "make it better," but we can connect. It takes presence and practice – just being there with or for someone and resisting the urge to "make it better." It may make us uncomfortable–that's the vulnerable part–but that's where the grace is.