sympathy, empathy, and aphasia

Empathy, Sympathy, and Aphasia

My daughter recently asked me the difference between sympathy and empathy. Sympathy involves feeling sadness for someone else’s situation and meeting them with care and concern. Empathy, on the other hand, is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. When you imagine how someone else feels, you treat them the way you would want to be treated.

Both stem from a place of kindness, so does it matter which one you get?

sympathy, empathy, and aphasia

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy certainly isn’t a bad thing! People want to be treated with care when they’re expressing their frustration over their situation. Sympathy or concern may be all you need in a short-term exchange. But in on-going relationships, empathy or even compassion is needed for good feelings to flow back and forth.

From Pity to Compassion

Psychology Today talks about the range from pity to compassion, defining how a person can move from acknowledging that someone else has a problem to helping someone with that problem.

  • Pity: Oh no! Aphasia sounds awful. You poor thing.
  • Sympathy: I am so sad that you’re experiencing aphasia.
  • Empathy: I understand that aphasia is frustrating, especially not being able to easily communicate.
  • Compassion: I want to help you navigate aphasia.

Finding Empathy

Can you give empathy if you’ve never experienced aphasia? How do you “feel” what the other person is feeling or gain that insight without going through the experience?

According to the BBC, we’re already hardwired to feel empathy, and learning how to be more empathetic is a skill similar to learning how to drive a car. So much of it comes down to picking up on body language, practicing “radical listening” (which means really hearing the person without thinking about what you’re going to say next), thinking deeply about the people around you.

Even without personally experiencing aphasia, people can feel empathy for another person’s situation and even make the jump to compassion and figure out ways they can help.

Do you think there is a difference between sympathy and empathy? Do you enjoy receiving one more than the other?

Image: Angela via Flickr via Creative Commons license



  • Lynne
    November 7, 2017 at 5:18 am

    I’ve been diagnosed with Asperger s so am often labled as having no empathy. I do the last thing on the list. I try and fix the persons sadness. I feel it so deeply I want it to go away. It’s liked being stabbed. I have trained myself not to do this and be more normal and just sit with the persons emotion, giving them sympathy. As I’ve grown older and seen great the world isn’t just the way I see it. Because of this I have developed the ability to stand in anothers’ shoes . I have great compassion now whereas before I was confused.

  • Anonymous
    November 11, 2017 at 10:13 pm

    to paraphrase Stephen Levine” when your fear touches someone’s pain it becomes pity. When your love touches someone’s pain, it becomes compassion”.

  • Shirley Morganstein
    November 14, 2017 at 9:42 am

    Brene Brown has a wonderful animation in which she explains the differences between sympathy and empathy.

  • Alison McLennan
    November 14, 2017 at 1:36 pm

    What I’m struggling with in terms of empathy and compassion is how to have compassion for those people who seem to be hurting others and destroying the world with greed and hate. How does one have compassion for those folks?

  • Lydia Acevedo
    May 18, 2018 at 7:51 pm

    I’m 7 years post stroke, and still dealing with lasting effects, aphasia being one of them. I got tired of being pitied by people, so I try, very hard, to educate people about the problem. I try to meet them along the road from sympathy to empathy to compassion, by giving them examples they can easily put themselves into. A lot of the time, it helps. Some times, it doesn’t. I’m the only person, in those conversations, at those times, who really understands what someone goes through, so to help the next person they encounter with aphasia, I try to give the person a reference point. I’m also dealing with prosopagnosia, so I do the same thing there. We are the ones who know, most intimately, what we are going through. Sometimes we need to help other people understand. We are the best equipped to do that.

  • Marie Parr
    March 4, 2019 at 3:38 am

    Its hard to have compasion all the time when my husband gets frustrated then really angry with me

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