Psychology Talk - Empathy/Sympathy


Greetings Steemians,

Lately I've been thinking about empathy and sympathy. Specifically, what it means to be empathetic/sympathetic for another human being.

Igorovsyannykov Pixabay

I'll begin by sharing the definition of empathy:

The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. Source Merriam-Webster

Often confused with sympathy:

An affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other. Source Merriam-Webster

These words seem closely related, but in all actuality, sympathy is a considerably older word than empathy. Which the Merriam-Webster dictionary further points out:

Source Merriam-Webster

A very important aspect to look at here is: empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have. Whereas with sympathy, whatever affects one similarly affects the other.

To know if you're an empathetic/sympathetic person, and which of the two applies to you, you'll need to be in tune with your own perception, and how you process emotions and thoughts.

What I would like to specifically address about empathy and sympathy is what I perceive to be an almost inarguable selfish aspect to the attributes of being subject to empathy or sympathy.

This is arguable my many, and may even be offensive, because what person who considers themselves empathetic or sympathetic would want to be called selfish?

Now the thought process which leads to empathy, and a sympathetic emotional process might lead to altruistic behavior, and this is mostly agreeable as being good, but I find it almost inarguable that any thought process which leads up to any behavior is selfish, because it is originating in oneself.

To move forward with a behavior as an aftereffect of the inaction based thinking, it is hard to fathom that an altruistic action does not have an underlying selfish motivator behind it.

If you are to ask people why they help others, (in any capacity.)
A common response might be:
"Because it makes me feel good to help others."
"Because it feels good to know I'm making a difference."
"Because I know what that struggle feels like."
"Because I cannot bear to see others struggle/suffer."

The key indicator is how an altruistic behavior makes the one carrying out the act feel.

I've heard some people say that selfish service to others does not make them feel good. That they still feel empathy or sympathy for the ones they are helping.

I can identify with this to a degree, however I cannot get past the idea that to carry out a "selfless" act, there must be a motivator behind the thought process, and at the very least, a feeling of making a difference for the one(s) you are helping.

I can identify with this sympathetic response when I give a homeless person money. I've been homeless and addicted to drugs, therefore I can re-visit the memory of how it felt to be in such a position, and internalize the feelings. I feel very strong emotional feelings when I see people in this state, and when I give them money, I know 9 times out of 10 it will be used for drugs, and they will be right back to panhandling the next day. (and not all homeless people panhandle, I absolutely refused to do it when I was homeless.)

For a brief moment I feel good knowing I helped someone in a moment of struggle. The thought of what they are going to use the money for is irrelevant to me. I know they are suffering, and I know that in a small way, I lowered their hardship a fraction of a degree. Do I still feel for them knowing it's not going to change their situation? Absolutely, the thought stays in my mind for a while. I think about when I was out there, how hard it was, and how hopeless I felt, and I reflect for sometimes an entire day about someones life that I don't know from a hole in the wall, based on my own experience.

These behaviors are not limited to just the homeless for me. If I see any person, regardless of gender, race, age, ect, in need of help, I will help them without a second thought. I know what it feels like to need help when help is not there, so in this aspect I am sympathizing with their state of need.

I go back to how it makes me feel.

It is undeniable to me that there is a brief moment where I feel good. I feel I've made a difference, and this motivates me to continue to help others when there are opportunities. So undeniable to me, there is a selfish component to this. A selfish component that I think is perfectly fine though, because it is altruistic in nature, expecting of nothing in return.

After reading some articles on this topic, I found that this is not a new debate regarding the selfishness of empathy and sympathy. This did alleviate doubting my thoughts a little, because I do see this as pretty rational to propose, and after reading articles and definitions, my ultimate conclusion is that I am a compassionate person.


Sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. Source Merriam-Webster

Absolutely, and it became clear to me in this moment of understanding all the dynamics of these words, that any who might vehemently argue the "selfish" aspect of empathy and sympathy are most likely compassionate people themselves. It makes perfect sense, because how could one even connect the dots to a desire to alleviate someone else's suffering or pain be construed as selfish?

It is understandable that there is a resistance to this idea, because after all, if you are known as someone who's altruistic and selfless in nature, then it's safe to assume others are not going to view you as selfish either.

There is more I could go into with this topic, like the aspect of empathy and sympathy with avoidance, and even manipulation, but we'll wrap it up right here for now. We'll talk some more psychology/philosophy in the future, and quite possibly revisit this topic again for some further inspection.

Sources of information and research:
Merriam-Webster Empathy
Merriam-Webster Sympathy
Merriam-Webster Altruism
Merriam-Webster Compassion
Empathy is crucial to being a good person, right? Think again
Empathy and Altruism: Are They Selfish?

I hope you enjoyed reading. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments!

Have a wonderful day!

Much love,

Posted with eSteem Surfer


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Hi Jake. I have always thought that it is better to empathize, than sympathize because sympathy means also to pity, and people don't want pity. Guess I got it all wrong. Oh dear, the times I empathized when I should have sympathized. Thanks for the clarification. 😊


You're not alone Vince,
My understanding of these words was incorrect. I didn't realize it until I put in a little research.
Indeed, pity is not perceived as good by the majority.
By definition it's not much different than sympathy, but is generally characterized as an unwillingness to help, or an ego driven sense of sympathy.
Thank you for stopping by my friend. I hope you have a nice week.


Hi, @futuremind!

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