What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

Admissions

2/7/2021

A common question for medical interviews.

The word 'empathy' being highlighted in a dictionary.

Sympathy vs Empathy

'I feel sorry for you.'

Ouch. That's not a sentence we want to hear. It comes from someone feeling superior. We realise the speaker isn’t sharing our problem and they have their own feelings about it.

'I really understand what you're going through.'

That one feels nicer. It shows the power of empathy. We can put ourselves in someone else's shoes and let them know we relate to their experience of the world. The writer Philip K. Dick went as far as to say empathy is what makes us human.

Empathy and your medical school application

1. Make sure you understand the difference between sympathy and empathy

2. Develop your empathy skills through work experience and extracurricular activities

3. Reflect on this in your personal statement

4. Mention this at interview, with plenty of contextual information

Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Adviser to the UK government

A Story About Empathy

Over Christmas weekend in 2020, Chris Whitty, England's Chief Medical Officer, was not at home with his family, but on a north London hospital’s respiratory ward.

Whitty chose to be on the front line of the pandemic and lead by example. If he had wanted to show sympathy for front-line nurses and doctors, he would have written 'I feel terrible that this is so hard for you...', in a tweet from his living room. What Whitty actually demonstrated was a level of empathy we all hope to see in healthcare. He put himself in the shoes of those in a worse position - voluntarily.

Dr. Brené Brown, an American professor and popular thought leader, says:

Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.

Dr. Whitty was showing connection in his solidarity with the frontline healthcare staff. He was not trying to solve their problems or tell them they were unfortunate, as that is not part of empathy. 

People fundamentally don’t want pity. We want someone to listen and understand what we are feeling. When others share similar experiences, it helps us understand our own issues. Healthcare is a great example of this, because it is a pressured environment, and highly emotional for both staff and patients.

Take our empathy test to see how you score

What is Sympathy: A Place for Pity?

Sympathy is not a bad emotion and is a natural part of human experience. Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone's misfortune, but express that in a way which centres around your feelings. It doesn't establish an emotional connection to the other person and can be seen as distant or condescending.

The positive side of sympathy is that it leads to compassion, which is a major trigger for action. The tricky side is that it’s not always useful to show people your sympathy, as it can undermine them. 

How to Show Empathy - in 5 Steps

Five steps for showing empathy: take someone else's perspective, do not judge, recognise emotions, let them know, and avoid saying 'I'.

Why is Empathy Essential in Healthcare?

Empathy has been a requirement in medical education since the 1980s, and the GMC has gathered enough data to justify putting this skill at the core of the curriculum.

Recent clinical studies have shown that metrics ranging from lung function and time in hospital to patient experience and perceived pain all improve when a doctor shows empathy. It can even shorten the length of a virus, such as the common cold.

Empathy lowers patients’ anxiety and distress and delivers significantly better clinical outcomes.

A highly-regulated place like a hospital can quickly turn into an inhuman environment without key people skills like empathy. The word ‘clinical’ is actually used as a synonym for an environment that lacks humanity.

Imagine a sick patient being told, “I feel sorry for you”. It would feel deeply isolating. Just that linguistic nuance can change a heartfelt sentence into a patronising insult. It’s isolating, because it means the doctor is identifying as separate from the patient.

A doctor smiling and looking into the eyes of a patient, showing empathy.

Summary

  • When dealing with difficult situations, you need to express empathy rather than sympathy.
  • Empathy is using your experience to stand in someone else’s shoes and relate to their experience.
  • Sympathy is focused on your own feelings and means you feel bad if someone is in an unfortunate situation.
  • People don't normally like to be sympathised with, whereas empathy is a universal need.
  • Sympathy is not inherently bad, but it is not often useful to express explicitly.
  • Empathy from medical professionals significantly improves patients’ outcomes. It is a trait that medical schools desire from their applicants.

Reflect on these lessons when undertaking your work experience, writing your UCAS personal statement and preparing for your medical school interviews.

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