The Difference Between Sympathy And Empathy In Mental Health Counseling

The Difference Between Sympathy And Empathy In Mental Health Counseling | NHWS | Mental Health Therapy Clinic

Your cousins’ beloved pet has passed away.

Or your best friend’s parent has succumbed to a longstanding battle with cancer.

In these situations you want to do something to show you care, to express your empathy – or is it sympathy?

Both terms have origins in the Greek word “pathos” which means “suffering” and “feeling”, however, although similar, they are not the same thing.

Today we’ll have a look at the difference between sympathy and empathy in how it relates to mental health counselling.

Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is the feeling you can share and understand the feelings of others.

Having empathy for someone means you can easily imagine yourself in their shoes or have experienced similar situations to them.

Empathy is generally associated with having a deep understanding of how someone else is feeling.

The Four Elements Of Empathy

In order to show true empathy towards someone else, there are four elements which must be present:

  1. Seeing the world through the other persons eyes, as they see it
  2. Being non-judgmental and fully appreciating them as humans
  3. Seeking to understand their feelings
  4. Communication of your understanding of their feelings, to help them feel understood

What Is Sympathy?

Very broadly, sympathy means “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people”.

It’s used to show feelings of sorrow or commiseration for those who are going through difficult times, even though you may not fully understand what they are going through.

When sympathy is given with sincerity and warmth it can be useful to offer support.

The Dark Side Of Sympathy

Sympathy can lead to feelings of alienation if the person offering it seems to be showing pity, which can come across as impersonal.

It can lead to disconnection to others, especially if one perceives themselves to be lucky to not be going through what the other party is experiencing, and can lead to offering empty apologies or unsolicited advice.

How To Offer Empathy

If someone you know is going through something difficult, here are some tips for offering empathy in an authentic way.

1. Resist The Urge To Give Advice

If someone is going through a difficult time, it can be very tempting to offer them advice on what to do – even more so if you have experienced something similar yourself.

This tactic however puts the focus on yourself and makes you pat yourself on the back because you were “trying to help”.

So unless you’re specifically asked for it, keep the advice to yourself and focus on offering a supportive ear instead, which leads us to the next point…

2. Listen. No, Really Listen

When was the last time you really listened to what someone was saying to you?

Many of us spend the time we should be listening trying to think of what we’re going to say next time there is a pause in the conversation, which means we aren’t truly listening.

Instead, really focus on what the other person is saying, and ensure you understand thoroughly their thoughts and feelings – this means you might not immediately have something to say in response to what they are telling you, so don’t always feel like you need to fill silences and gaps in the conversation.

3. Be Present And Authentic

Being present involves putting aside any thoughts or notions you have about someone’s past works or actions, or judging the things they’re saying in the present.

The act of truly being in the moment is the best way to help someone feel understood and listened to.

In addition, the act of fully aiming to understand someone doesn’t mean you always have to agree with them, and in fact, doing so just to try to make them “feel better” can often have an adverse effect.

Ask Empowering Questions to be more empathetic | NHWS | Mental Health Therapy Clinic

4. Ask Empowering Questions

Rather than trying to offer advice, asking the right questions can be a way to help someone look internally, and in cases where they aren’t sure what to do, this can often lead to helping them determine their next action steps on their own.

These are often “What” and “How” questions, such as:

  • What can you do differently next time?
  • What did you do which went smoothly?
  • How can you learn from this situation

5. Hold Space For Emotions

Letting people express the emotions they are feeling is important when showing empathy.

If they’re sad and need to cry, allowing them to do so might be just what they need.

Angry? Listening while they vent about a situation which might be unfair can help them air their frustrations.

Whatever emotions they need to express, allow them to fully experience them without attempting to calm them or asking them to hold back.

Book An Appointment With New Horizons Wellness Services

Are you going through a difficult time and need someone to talk to, someone to really listen to you?

Is the ongoing pandemic affecting your life, and you need someone to work things through with?

We’re New Horizons Wellness Services and we offer mental health counseling services which can help you move past the obstacles which are holding you back.

No matter what issues you’re dealing with, we offer non-judgmental counselors who can help you gain control over whatever you may be dealing with.

Contact us today for more information or a consultation.

Yours in Health,

New Horizons Wellness Services
13333 SW 68th Pkwy,
Tigard, OR 97223


New Horizons Wellness Services provides a true multidisciplinary approach to mental & physical health treatments for children, adults and families.