Sympathy VS Pity: 5 Basic Differences with Examples

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One of the best personality traits a person can have is to be someone who doesn't just think about their own needs… but also thinks about the needs of others in a caring way

If we have lived long enough, we have all shown sympathy and pity toward others. Moreover, we have also been in situations where we were the recipients of someone’s sympathy and pity because of our circumstances.

Sympathy and pity serve as a lifeline to someone drowning in a pool of despair. Even if a person lives by the mantra, “Amor-Fati,” embracing life with all its ups and downs… they could still benefit from hearing words of comfort now and again.  Both sympathy and pity restore our faith in humanity and open our eyes to the hearts of the people around us.

Furthermore, someone having sympathy and pity for us can result from the good we have done for them. In some way, we have made their lives better, and they are more than happy to return the favor in our time of sorrow.

I remember losing my sister, brother-in-law, and nephew in a tragic car accident during my first year in college. The pain our family was in was unimaginable. My old high school found out about the incident, and the entire school rallied to show sympathy and pity to my family.

First, we had a group of teachers show up at our doorstep. They were all carrying platters of food, crockpots, and desserts. As they offered their condolences, they asked for our eating schedules. Then informed us that the teachers got a schedule together and certain staff members would bring lunch and dinner every day for the next week.

Secondly, they offered words of comfort and encouragement. I remember grocery shopping with my math teacher (Mr. Griffin). It was his day to provide the food, but since he didn’t cook, he took me shopping to get a few (cooked) foods like rotisserie chicken, sides, rolls, and snacks.

Mr. Griffin said he was glad to be there because we had done so much for him. He said the behavior of myself, and my sisters made their jobs as teachers easier, smoother, and a joy. He wished all students were as we were.

Lastly, the sympathy and pity of the teachers toward us were contagious. They engaged the students and raised money for our family to help with expenses. Again, sympathy and pity show the heart of the person reaching out and say a lot about the people being benefited.

What is Sympathy?

Sympathy is a feeling of sorrow for someone's misfortunes.  It takes the attention off us and directs it to the needs of others. Moreover, sympathy is an emotional response to someone's pain that usually provokes our actions.

For instance, some young parents from a small community in Minnesota had a 2-year-old son who was missing. The mother turned around for a second, and her child was gone. The family was well known and loved by many.

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When someone is sympathetic, they may offer words of encouragement. When someone has pity, they just feel bad for you.

So, when the word spread about the missing child, many wealthy community members offered rewards for information that led to the child's whereabouts. Others, out of sympathy, put up flyers with pictures of the child and posted photos on their social media pages.

You don't have to know a person personally to sympathize with them.  So, when we see “Feed the Children” commercials on TV showing starving children, we are moved with compassion and help them by sending money.

What is Pity?

Similar to sympathy, pity is defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as the act or capacity for sharing the painful feelings of another.  In addition, pity implies tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress.

This reminds me of the famous saying of TV Star Mr. T when he says, “I pity the fool.”  Pity is feeling sorry for someone but lacking the compassion and deepness of sympathy.

For instance, I can see someone whose car has broken down on the side of the road. With the hood raised, I may notice how they stand over the car in frustration. As I see them, I feel sorry for them in pity, yet I continue driving to my destination.

Another example of pity is seeing someone make bad decisions or break the law. You have tried to warn them of the potential consequences of their actions, yet they didn't listen.  So now the person has been arrested and, after trial, sentenced to multiple years in prison.

You feel bad for them and pity them for being locked away in jail because it is not a good place to be. And their freedoms have been taken away for years.

Sympathy VS Pity: 5 Basic Differences with Examples

1. Sympathy VS Pity on Misfortunes

Sympathy sees the misfortunes of another, and it moves them to act. However, pity often sees the misfortunes and feels terrible for them, yet that is where it ends.

For instance, Claudia works in a very professional office. She usually dresses in high heel shoes. It is part of her wardrobe for which she is most known. One day, while walking through the office, she slipped on the floor and twisted her ankle.

Many of her co-workers and bosses had pity on her because she was obviously in pain and embarrassed. But the janitor had sympathy for her. He not only felt bad for her but also helped her up and carried her over to a chair.

2. Sympathy VS Pity on Encouragement

When someone is sympathetic, they may offer words of encouragement. When someone has pity, they just feel bad for you.

Jeffery was a star basketball player in his city. He was on track to lead his team to the World Championship. However, during the final championship game, Jeffery jumped to block a shot from an opposing player on his team's home floor and landed awkwardly.

Consequently, he broke his left leg and had to miss the remainder of the game. As a result, unfortunately, his team lost.

Many of the players on the opposing time had pity for Jeffery. They saw the pain he was in physically and the disappointment from not being able to help his team close out an important game. But many of the fans had sympathy for Jeffery.

Not only did they feel bad for him, but they gave him a standing ovation after the game for his efforts. Moreover, the fans cheered, “Thank You, Jeffery!”  They wanted him to know he had their love and support despite the unfortunate incident.

3. Sympathy VS Pity on Expressing Concern

Sympathy is a deeper and more personal level of expressing concern than having pity on someone.

For example, Sam has sympathy for Tommy and his family. Their dog had been in the family 10 years before it died. Sam knew Tommy’s dog slept at the foot of his bed every night.

However, their classmate Avery didn’t know Tommy had a dog.  But when he heard Tommy's dog died, he pitied him.

4. Sympathy VS Pity on Better Outcomes

Having sympathy for someone is usually a deep feeling of concern for the well-being of someone in their time of misfortune. This feeling is accompanied by a desire for the unfortunate person to be better or happier. Pity is feeling sorry for someone in their time of despair. Still, it is not usually accompanied by the deep desire to see the outcome of a person change like with sympathy.

For instance, Kelly was diagnosed with cancer and had been going to treatments for weeks. Many in her family pitied her and felt terrible that she was going through a difficult battle with cancer.

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Sympathy is a deeper and more personal level of expressing concern than having pity on someone.

But Kelly’s neighbor Nicole had sympathy for her, often checking on her after treatments to see how she was doing and what the doctors were reporting.

5. Sympathy VS Pity on Regret

Pity is a feeling of regret. Even though sympathy shares the same sense of regret, it comes from a place of detailed knowledge concerning one's circumstances.

For example, Janice expresses pity for Mark because he could not be at the award ceremony to receive his plaque. Lindsay felt bad for Mark as well.

But out of sympathy, she knew he couldn't attend the ceremony to receive his reward because his daughter was in the hospital with pneumonia.

Final Thoughts on Sympathy VS Pity: 5 Basic Differences with Examples

In a world that perceives many as cold-hearted, two-faced, and thoughtless individuals… may we not be one of them.  This world runs off the fuel of love, kindness, gentleness, thoughtfulness, and respect. Without it, it would be such a miserable place.

It is simple human decency to see someone less fortunate and have pity on them. Even if their unfortunate situation is for a short moment. I was at a meeting when a lady sat down in her chair, and it broke.

Many in the room were laughing; however, as a show of pity for her, I did not laugh. In fact, I didn't even find it funny, and when she looked me in the eyes, I wanted her to see that I did not want her embarrassed or ashamed. 

But unfortunately, pity can come across as a shallow kiddie pool compared to the lake of water that is sympathy. Because as we show sympathy, we put action to our thoughts of pity. In other words, we seek to bring some degree of comfort to a person’s uncomfortable situation.

I had a co-worker named Kelly, who caught her boyfriend cheating, so they broke up. She called her friend Sarah, terribly upset and crying uncontrollably. Feeling sorry for her friend, Sarah showed up at Kelly's doorstep with a dozen roses, popcorn, a movie, chocolates, and a bucket of ice cream.

She could not stand the thought of her friend going through this heartbreak alone. That is sympathy. You have a big heart, so surround yourself with loyal people who can be there for you in those unfavorable times.  You deserve to give what you get.

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