Empathy vs Sympathy in Psychodynamic Psychotherapy

In my last post, I discussed the role of empathy in promoting moral behavior; it set me to thinking more about empathy and, in particular, the way people often use that word interchangeably with the word sympathy when they actually describe different experiences. If you’re already clear on that difference, bear with me.

Here are two dictionary definitions from Merriam-Webster:

Sympathy:

“the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another”

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 of present without having the feelings, thoughts and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner”

In my view, the distinction between empathy vs sympathy involves the difference between entering into and sharing those feelings that another person may have verbally and intentionally expressed vs intuiting something unspoken, of which the other person may sometimes be entirely unaware. I often find that clients want me to sympathize with what they’re telling me, when in fact, they need me to empathize with and help them become aware of something unconscious they’re afraid to know. …