Sympathy vs Empathy

Updated: Sep 28

Initially sympathy and empathy may look similar but are they?


In January 2018 The Guardian published an article (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/20/cancer-elizabeth-wurtzel) by the American writer Elizabeth Wurtzel about her stage four breast cancer. It is a powerful read.

The comments about the piece interested me. People were quick to pass comment about her anger. I observed the feed and was struck with the differing feelings and needs for sympathy and empathy from others who had experienced their own cancer diagnosis. Neither is right or wrong. Wurtzel has led a challenging life and was used to picking up the pieces and carrying on. My sense was Wurtzel was irritated by sympathy and wanted to be left alone to continue with her life and feelings and offers of sympathy disrupted this flow.

When we receive a diagnosis of cancer do we want or need sympathy or empathy? Sympathy can be described as an emotional reaction of pity or sadness for someone else whereas empathy understands what they are going through.


When I was diagnosed with cancer I would have an internal volcanic reaction of anger if I even got a whiff that someone felt sorry for me. The looks, the platitudes, the pointless comments, I would want to run for the hills and could not abide being seen as a helpless victim. I would want to scream that I was still me, capable, determined and feisty. I found sympathy stifling, it was about them expressing their feelings. It was about their need to comfort me or rescue me in a way which suited them and not in any way what I needed or wanted. Sympathy is superficial, meaningless and achieves very little. I sound selfish and heartless writing that, they were doing their best. My life was so awful and my mind so overloaded just surviving I couldn’t cope with the feelings of others.


People who understood what I needed showed me empathy and allowed me to do what I needed to do. This was helpful. Day by day, treatment by treatment. The days I wanted to plan a crazy adventure. The days I wanted to cry about how shit it all was. The days I was paralysed with fear about dying. The days I was angry at not being able to be capable, determined and feisty. The days I felt hopeless and disillusioned that I would ever recover.

Even better was compassion where I felt people really helped me. A look from my counsellor that I was doing ok, a call from a doctor because they knew I was irrationally anxious about a blood test, my husband’s understanding of my passion to travel. They understood me and conveyed this in a way which was meaningful to me.


Brené Brown beautifully describes the difference between sympathy and empathy with: “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection”. Sympathy sees your distress and does nothing. Empathy understands and says I'm here for you.


I understand it’s hard for people to know what to do and when. So I’m going to suggest something radical and revolutionary….ask them. Get to know what your friend, partner or family member is going through and ask what they need? What would be helpful for them today, tomorrow or next week? Ask them what they don’t like or want. Yes it may be awkward, yes it may be embarrassing and yes you may not get it quite right but you have tried to understand what they are going through and they will appreciate that.

What does sympathy feel like for you? What does empathy feel like for you? How do they differ? Did you need different support at different times of your diagnosis, treatment and recovery? Who are you able to tell about how you feel and what you need?




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