There is a very fine line between sympathy and empathy – I learnt that in the first two weeks of training to be a listening Samaritan. If you see with your eyes and hear what is being said then empathy is easy. Setting out deliberately or with the intention to be kind to others to benefit yourself is not empathetic – that is sympathetic. Sympathy is nodding along saying you understand when you don’t and hoping that will make them feel better. Empathy is being quiet, letting them speak and when they finish being there for them without the distraction of ‘making them feel better’. Sometimes they can’t just feel better – and that is ok.
For a long time I considered myself only sympathetic for others, now having learnt how to be empathetic people (strangers and friends) open up to me about all sorts and I believe that is a mark of an empathy.