Commonly Confused Words: Empathy vs. Sympathy

If you have ever had to try to explain the difference between two words that are very similar, I have empathy for you. That’s the situation that I find myself in at the moment trying to explain empathy vs. sympathy, so I know how difficult it can be. If you don’t know what it is like to struggle with a writing assignment but you recognize that I am having a hard time, you might feel sympathy for my plight, meaning that you feel sorry for me because you can tell that I am upset and frustrated.

Empathy vs. Sympathy at a Glance

Both sympathy and empathy derive from the Greek root pathos, meaning feeling or suffering. Each word denotes a different way to react to the pain or emotions of others.

*Sympathy translates literally as “feeling with” and refers to a feeling of sorrow or pity for someone else’s misfortune.

*Empathy translates literally as “feeling into” and refers to the ability to put oneself into the place of another and understand what the other person is feeling.

What Is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?

Sympathy and empathy are both words that have gone through a significant evolution in their definitions. Therefore, you may find definitions for each word in the dictionary that don’t really jibe with the way people use them today. Dictionaries are more likely to defer to etymology to define them. Thus, Merriam-Webster defines empathy as understanding another person’s emotions but not necessarily sharing them, while sympathy is defined as sharing another person’s emotions.

However, the usage of the words sympathy and empathy has been heavily influenced by the field of psychology, which is less concerned with etymology and more concerned with the feelings themselves and the effects they have. Therefore, while Merriam-Webster’s definition of empathy implies a possible disconnect between the empathizer and the person in pain, psychologist Dr. Brené Brown asserts the opposite, that sympathy is a more cognitive approach to the feelings of others and, while kindly meant, involves distance and disconnection. One person may feel sad for someone who is in pain, but that does not prevent the first person from passing judgments or making suggestions that are not really helpful because the sympathizer does not really understand the root cause. Empathy, according to Dr. Brown’s assessment, is a more emotional response that involves identification with and connection to the person in pain.

As a holder of a Bachelor of Science in Education, I have a basic grounding in educational psychology, and therefore, Dr. Brown’s definition makes a lot more sense to me. However, this is a writing blog, so I am obliged to go with the dictionary definition.

Sympathy Definition

Originally, sympathy meant agreement with other people or harmonious relations with them. Thus, people who shared similar beliefs or points of view were said to be in sympathy with one another. This is similar to how simpatico is used in Spanish, and it is sometimes still used this way in English. More often, sympathy is used more specifically to refer to a feeling of sadness provoked by someone else’s misfortune.

For example, if a family member of a friend dies, you know your friend is feeling sad, so you feel sorry about it and send your friend a sympathy card. Or if a friend loses a job, you know that he or she is going to face financial hardship, so you might feel sad about that. This may not prevent you from passing judgment, if only within your own mind, about whether the job loss was deserved.

Examples using Sympathy in a sentence:

  • Though their backgrounds are different, they are in sympathy with one another in their political beliefs.
  • While many of the fans felt sympathy for the disgraced actor, they still expressed the opinion that he had brought his troubles upon himself.

Empathy Definition

The best definition of empathy I’ve ever read comes from neither a dictionary nor a psychologist but from 19th-century poet Walt Whitman. In “Song of Myself,” Whitman writes: “I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person / My hurts turn livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.”

Empathy, therefore, is the ability to understand someone else’s feelings by putting yourself in his or her place and seeing things from his or her point of view. In many cases, empathy stems from having had an experience that is similar to what the other person is going through and being able to relate it to the current situation. However, some people are so imaginative and sensitive that they can put themselves in someone else’s place without having had a similar past experience.

There is also a definition of empathy that means projecting one’s own emotions onto inanimate objects or works of art. This appears to be a more archaic meaning. I’ve never heard it used this way, nor could I find any examples of it.

Examples using empathy in a sentence:

  • After unexpectedly losing the job she loved at the beginning of the summer, the erstwhile medical transcriptionist could feel empathy for the puppeteer’s unceremonious dismissal, though the types of work they did were completely different.
  • Abductors with Lima syndrome, which is the converse of Stockholm syndrome, experience empathy for the plight of their hostages and have second thoughts about the kidnapping.

How To Use Empathy vs. Sympathy

It is hard to explain when to use empathy or sympathy because doing so is based on context, attitude, and background. While there are nuances of meaning in the definitions of the terms as they are used in different fields, most sources generally agree that sympathy refers to sharing feelings while empathy is more about understanding them. Perhaps I struggle with that distinction because, as an INFP, feeling and understanding are the same things for me. Let us know in the comments how you feel about empathy vs. sympathy.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.