When you’re asking for someone’s understanding and compassion for a situation or experience that is affecting you or your life, you typically ask someone for his or her sympathy. But sometimes, you also might hear someone ask you to empathize with him or her about an issue. Have you ever wondered what the difference between the two may be? In this blog, we’ll discuss the difference between empathy and sympathy and when is the best time to utilize both coping and compassion mechanisms. At Peer Support Central, we want to do our best to offer PTSD support to those who have been in the military or a first responder. If you or a loved one is struggling with the effects of PTSD and is searching for PTSD support from those who can understand the situation, contact Peer Support Central for more information today!


Empathy is a word derived from the Greek term páthos that means “suffering or feeling” and the prefix em- is derived from the Greek word en- that means to “be within or in”. When you put the words together, empathy means, in essence, to be “in or within suffering or feeling”. As you can probably deduce by now, to empathize with someone means to do your best to place yourself in the individual’s situation and try your best to feel his or her feelings. Many people describe it using the old adage of “putting yourself in the other person’s shoes”. This can especially be difficult if you’re trying to empathize with someone when you haven’t experienced the situation, but it is a huge part of emotional intelligence. When you can take yourself out of your normal operations and perspectives and attempt to understand a friend or loved one’s experience or issue, this action will convey to the individual that you care and want to understand his or her situation as best as you can.

You can also ask for more details or an explanation of the backstory so you can better understand his or her perspective better. Another great way to show that you’re there for the person is to simply listen. Many people feel better when they can just talk out an issue without having to immediately solve it. External processing can be extremely therapeutic, and a listening, compassionate, and non-judgmental ear can make a stressed-out and irritated person feel better and more at peace.


Understanding the meaning of the word sympathy is simple because it has a similar root as empathy. With the same suffix of páthos, the prefix syn- means “together”. Essentially, it means to be close with the individual and wish him or her the best and hope that the situation or issue is resolved. Sympathy is the feeling that is expressed when you feel concerned for the person, but you don’t necessarily feel the same or can identify with him or her. This is often why you send sympathy cards to family members or friends who have experienced the death of a loved ones because you might not have experienced a death in your family, but you want to convey your sorrow.

How to Express the Right Emotion

It can be confusing as to which emotion you’re trying to convey when a friend comes to you with a problem. Think of it this way:

  • Sympathy is the ability to understand someone’s feelings or emotions, but you’ve never had the same experience as him or her.
  • Empathy is being able to feel and experience similar emotions because you’ve been through the same experience.

If you want to be close to someone and express your concern, try your best to employ the right response. Too much sympathy could make the individual feel as if you’re only feigning emotion. Excessive empathy can also make someone feel like you don’t care and you’re trying to make the attention focus on you. Being genuine is crucial to helping your friend or loved one feel listened to and like someone cares.

The next time that you’re faced with an issue and you truly want to help someone through a problem, think about the differences between being empathetic and sympathetic so you can have the correct response. Being understanding and compassionate is part of being an emotionally intelligent and helpful person, and as you spend time listening to your friend or loved one, you can hone your skills of being empathetic or sympathetic to the situation. At Peer Support Central, our goal is to provide counseling and support for those who have been in life-altering situations, such as the military or being a first-responder. We offer peer support for those who experience and struggle with PTSD. If you or a loved one is searching for PTSD support, contact Peer Support Central now. Our compassionate counselors are here for you. Call today!