Empathy & sympathy: boundaries in good healthcare

People who work in healthcare can easily become overwhelmed by the pain witnessed every day. As a result, it is important to repeatedly clarify the boundaries of empathy and sympathy.

Empathy is highly complex and multidimensional. It  consists of both cognitive and affective (emotional) aspects.

  1. Affective empathy is when we experience the feelings of others.
  2. Cognitive empathy is having the ability to understand the experiences and feelings of others and being able to relay that understanding back to them.

Empathy also involves the ability to separate our own emotions from those of the other person. This can help improve objectivity and in highly charged situations, helps to reduce our anxiety and distress. This can protect us from emotional burnout (i.e. emotional exhaustion and depersonalisation); it is generally considered important to find a balance between the emotional and cognitive aspects of empathy. This takes time and discipline to develop.

Sympathy is about feeling sorry for someone and does not require us to understand the other person’s point of view. It is generally considered an automatic, emotional response which, especially in healthcare, can often overwhelm people.

The video below is helpful to start discussing the boundaries between empathy and sympathy which can feed into wider work on professional discipline in the area.


Jeffrey D. Communicating with a human voice: developing a relational model of empathy. J R Coll Physicians Edinb 2017; 47: 266–70.

Maslach C. What we have learned about burnout and health. Psychological Health. 2001; 16:607-611.

Svenaeus F. The relationship between empathy and sympathy in good healthcare. Medicine, Healthcare and Philosophy, 2015 May; 18(2):267-77.

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