Empathy or Sympathy?

by Craig Shrives

What Is the Difference between "Empathy" and "Sympathy"?

"Empathy" and "sympathy" are easy to confuse because they both relate to feeling sorry for another person. However, there is a difference.
  • Empathy. "Empathy" means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another (having shared the same, or a similar, experience). For example:
    • You've lost your dog? I lost my dog too. I can empathize with you.
    • ("To empathize" means to have empathy.)
  • Sympathy. "Sympathy" means feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. For example:
    • You've lost your dog? I don't have a dog. I sympathize with you.
    • ("To sympathize" means to have sympathy.)
empathy or sympathy?

More about "Empathy" and "Sympathy"

Writers often confuse "empathy" and "sympathy." These two words are similar in meaning, but they are not the same. If you use the wrong one, you will either change the meaning of your sentence or be spotted as someone who doesn't know the difference.

Empathy

The noun "empathy" means the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. This ability usually derives from having shared the same, or a similar, experience. For example, you can have empathy for a poor person if you are, or were, poor.

More examples:
  • I have empathy for your problem. I've been there.
To have empathy with someone, it is not necessary to have shared the same experience, even though this would give you empathy. Empathy can also be achieved by understanding what the inflicted person's situation is like. Here are some examples that highlight this point:
  • Empathy is at the heart of the actor's art. (Actress Meryl Streep)
  • The great gift of human beings is that we have the power of empathy. (also Meryl Streep)
  • Friendship is a living thing that lasts only as long as it is nourished with kindness, empathy, and understanding. (anon)
The corresponding verb is "to empathize":
  • I can empathize with you. I've been there.
  • He will empathize with you. He managed the same department for ten years.

Sympathy

The noun "sympathy" means feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune. For example:
  • You have my utmost sympathy. You trained like a demon for that race.
  • I would like to extend my sympathy to your son. I am sorry to hear of the death of his goldfish.
The corresponding verb is "to sympathize":
  • The vicar will sympathize with you. She knows how hard you trained.
  • (There is no suggestion the vicar has trained hard herself (that would be "empathize" not "sympathize"). As a result, the preposition "with" does not feel right with "to sympathize" because "sympathizing" usually means you haven't experienced the bad event yourself. "With" seems a better fit for "empathize." However, it is used with both verbs.)
"Sympathy" is not always about feelings of pity and sorrow. It can also mean "to understand" or "to agree with." In this meaning, it carries a connotation of "not full support." For example:
  • It's hard not to have sympathy with their claims.
  • It's clear from her inaction that she sympathizes with their cause.

A Video Summary

Here is a short video summarizing the difference between empathy and sympathy:

Everyone empathizes with me, sir.

If you need to tell your boss they are too abrupt (or whatever), tell them the rest of the staff empathize with you. (This will be taken to mean that the rest of the staff have told you that the boss is abrupt to them too.) If you tell the boss the rest of the staff sympathize with you, it means the boss is just abrupt to you.

It's a neat line for a formal letter. It's polite, but it's cutting.

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See Also

adverse or averse? affect or effect? appraise or apprise? avenge or revenge? bare or bear? complement or compliment? dependant or dependent? discreet or discrete? disinterested or uninterested? e.g. or i.e.? envy or jealousy? imply or infer? its or it's? material or materiel? poisonous or venomous? practice or practise? principal or principle? tenant or tenet? who's or whose? What are adjectives? What are prepositions? Glossary of easily confused words

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