Sympathy and empathy are pretty close in emotions of caring for the plight of another person. The main difference between them is that sympathy is more detached: one understands how another feels and wishes to convey that awareness, without becoming actually involved, from a 'safe' distance, so to speak.
Empathy is more intense in reaction, a desire to SHARE that experience with another. One could say that empathy takes sympathy to the ultimate level in expressing our understanding of, and alignment with, another's predicament or situation.
"Do we need a degree of empathy to sympathise?"
Yes we do. I don't think we can be sympathetic without having that feeling for someone in the first place. A person who is cold-hearted and self absorbed would hardly find it within him/herself to be sympathetic, let alone empathetic.
As to sympathy being based on "arrogance and self-righteousness", as someone said, I have to disagree. Sympathy is a form of genuine care for someone, except from a detached position; one where the giver does not feel able to get involved or to be caring beyond a certain level. One could also say that sympathy can have a superficial element to it, for example, if some people are behaving like lemmings and simply following what others are doing in offering sympathy, but it is never arrogant.
I think a lady summed it up neatly when she said "Sympathy seems more like pity, feeling badly for the other person...". Precisely, without being drawn into that person's world or being overly concerned about their predicament. But we cannot pretend that all forms of sympathy is bad or 'dehumanising'. That's a generalised statement that does not take into account some people's genuine feelings of inadequacy at giving empathy and feeling more comfortable giving sympathy. Every individual is different so we cannot impute negative motives for their behaviour. I know that when I personally show sympathy I mean it, otherwise I don't show it at all.
For me, sympathy and empathy are two ends of the same continuum: Sympathy starts the caring process in a detached way, without emotional involvement, while empathy takes it further and completes the cycle of genuine care and appreciation for the individual, by putting one's self in that person's situation to aid greater understanding and appreciation. Above all, empathy strives to show our humanity, that we're all in this together.
©Elaine Sihera (Ms CYPRAH) 2012
Emotional Health and People Management Consultant
"Happiness is a state of being. We are the ones who decide whether we wish to be happy or not, by the script we use inside our heads."