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“Empathy” vs. “Sympathy”: What’s the Difference?

“Empathy” vs. “Sympathy”: What’s the Difference?

They sound similar. They look similar. Even their meanings are similar. Yet, empathy and sympathy appear as two distinct entries in all dictionaries. So what’s the difference between these confusing words, and when should you use one instead of the other?

The short answer is, to sympathize with someone is to feel sorry for their pain. To empathize with someone, however, is to actually feel and understand their pain.

But let's dig a little deeper.

Why all the confusion?

It’s not by chance that these words are so close to each other—and that people often mix them up. They’re alike because they have a common etymology. Both share the fragment -pathy, which comes from the Greek word pathos, meaning “feelings” or “emotions”. The differences between empathy and sympathy are to be found in the first syllable of each word.

The sym- in sympathy is a variation of the prefix syn-, which means “together” in Greek. In other words, when you use the word sympathy, you are talking about two separate entities that are closely aligned—they are together.

The em- in empathy is a variation of the Greek prefix en-, meaning “in”. If one is “in” another, there is just one—not two together.

“Sympathy”: Definition and examples

The word sympathy has been kicking around in the English language for a few hundred years (since around the late 16th century, to be precise). As such, its meaning is broader and has more varied uses. These all have to do with one person or entity being together or in sync with another.

Let’s look at a few shades of the definition of sympathy and how they are used:

1. Feeling sorry about the bad situation of another. Examples:

  • The nurses were sympathetic to my situation.

  • We want to offer our sympathies on the loss of your father.

  • I have no sympathy for him. He created this problem himself.

2. Supporting or being connected to a cause. Examples:

  • Their sympathies lie with the opposition party.

  • She’s clearly sympathetic to our cause and gave a large donation.

3. When what affects A also affects B. Examples:

  • They moved in sympathy to the music.

  • This tuning fork vibrates in sympathy with that one (remember this from high school physics?)

While all of these meanings are in use, the first one is the one you hear most often. It’s also the most closely connected to empathy and it’s the meaning we need to contrast.

“Empathy”: Definition and examples

Empathy is one of those rare words for which we know exactly who used it first, and when.

In 1908, a psychologist named Edward Titchener was looking for the perfect way to translate the German term Einfühlung. Not finding a satisfying entry in the dictionary, he decided to call it empathy, a brand-new word. The German term itself was coined in 1858. Originally, it had more to do with art (being able to project your personality onto a painting, for example) than feeling what another person is going through.

Over time it grew to mean the ability to share another person’s feelings. An empathetic person is able to feel someone else’s feelings as if they were their own. Note that empathy is very close to compassion, although this last notion takes it a step further to designate the willingness to help and alleviate the distress of the person in pain.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how empathy is used:

  • After moving from one uncaring foster home to another, Andy finally experienced empathy from Joe and Kerry, who adopted him in 2017.

  • No matter how difficult life gets, because of Sarah’s empathy, I always feel like we’re tackling the problem together.

  • I thought I was a pretty caring teacher, but the empathy workshop taught me to relate to my students on a much deeper level.

How to remember the difference between “sympathy” and “empathy”?

No doubt you can look back at your personal experiences and recall both an empathetic response and a sympathetic one. Was there a time when you opened up to someone about a serious problem and felt as though you were truly listened to and understood? If so, you experienced empathy. Connecting the memory of this experience with the word empathy will stop you from mixing the two terms in the future.

An easy memory trick? Empathy starts with “em” as does the word emotions, which is what you experience, sometimes overwhelmingly, when sharing the feelings of someone else.

By contrast, can you recall sharing a problem with a friend and not feeling thoroughly understood? Sure your friend wishes you hadn’t been fired from your job, but maybe she doesn’t quite “get it” because her own job is secure. This friend is being sympathetic, but her attitude doesn’t rise to the level of empathy. Likely, the experience wasn’t quite as satisfying.

In a nutshell

Now that you know the differences between these two words, it should be easy to use them correctly in writing or speech. Just remember to use sympathy to say that you’re feeling sorry for others or to describe an affinity between two parties. Use empathy to express a deeper connection where you actually share the feelings of others.

Take a little practice quiz: "Sympathy" vs. "Empathy"

Think you now know the difference between sympathy and empathy? Let’s find out! Read the sentences below. Your job is to label them as examples of sympathy or empathy.

  1. It’s such a shame there are so many homeless people in the city. (Empathy or sympathy?)

  2. The upstairs neighbors were playing their music so loud that I put my hand on the wall and could literally feel it vibrating. (Empathy or sympathy?)

  3. I finally told my new boyfriend everything about my past. I thought he was going to head for the hills, but he didn’t. He really got it. We had a good cry together. (Empathy or sympathy?)

  4. I feel sorry for Keith. He has the most difficult job with the lowest pay. (Empathy or sympathy?)

  5. When I see her treat you like that, it really hurts me. (Empathy or sympathy?)

Quiz answers: 1) Sympathy 2) Sympathy (An example of the sympathetic vibration phenomenon in physics. Also, by the way, a great example of lack of empathy) 3) Empathy 4) Sympathy 5) Empathy

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Ruth Almon, Knowledge Base Writer at Wix

Ruth Almon, Knowledge Base Writer at Wix

Things I am sympathetic to: Words | Grandkids | Empathy | Yoga | Grandpuppy | Kindness | Plants | Cat Videos

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