Sympathy vs. Empathy

Blooming orange flower

What’s the difference?

Words hold so much power, and so does our understanding of them. I was rereading Brené Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection, and in it she talks about definitions a lot. As a researcher, she creates her own definitions based on the patterns she spots from the data. In The Gifts of Imperfection, she writes her own definitions for big human concepts, like love, shame, and belonging. Personally, I love her definition of connection: the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship. Pretty great. So when it comes to two words that seem rather similar, like sympathy and empathy, I turn to Brown. I think understanding the difference between these two words can be key to fostering connection in the way Brown describes it, especially in the context of grief.

I would argue that sympathy is more commonly used in society’s language around grief—at least from a commercial perspective. Drug stores have a “sympathy” cards section. Google “sympathy gift baskets” and you’ll get more hits than “empathy gift baskets”. At Hummingbird & Willow, we had to use the word sympathy on our website for SEO purposes; it’s that pervasive. What I’d love to do here is explore the difference between these two similar sounding words, and uncover how empathy can be more effective when it comes to being with someone in their grief.

Without diving too deep, the difference, as I understand it, is as follows: sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone. You might even try to add a silver lining to their situation, rather than sit with them in their emotions. Empathy is when you take on someone else's perspective without judgement—it’s feeling with someone, rather than for someone. I got these definitions from a short, animated video a coworker shared with me. It’s kind of wonderful, actually; RSA takes Brené Brown’s voice (I love her southern accent), and pairs it with an animated short, featuring a bear, a fox, and some antlered animal I can’t decipher. The line that actually stands out the most to me in the video is: “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” I can’t help but think of Hummingbird & Willow’s mission in this sense—it’s not about fixing anything. A gift box is not going to fix anything; it’s about the thoughtfulness that inspires a connection between two people.

If you’re unfamiliar with RSA, it stands for the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce and it’s based out of London. Their mission is to champion curiosity, creativity, and courage to inspire better ways of thinking and doing— and of course, they create animated shorts they dub “espresso for the mind.”

Here’s the link. Drink up.


Written by Alex Falconer

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