Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions, and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning.

Comparison chart



Definition Understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. Acknowledging another person's emotional hardships and providing comfort and assurance.
Example I know it's not easy to lose weight because I have faced the same problems myself. When people try to make changes like this (e.g. lose some weight) at first it seems difficult.
Relationship Personal Friends, family and community ( the experience of others) .
Nursing context Relating with your patient because you have been in a similar situation or experience Comforting your patient or their family
Scope Personal, It can be one to many in some circumstances From either one to another person or one to many (or one to a group).

Contents: Empathy vs Sympathy

Emotional differences

Sympathy essentially implies a feeling of recognition of another's suffering while empathy is actually sharing another's suffering, if only briefly. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes". So empathy is a deeper emotional experience.

Empathy develops into an unspoken understanding and mutual decision making that is unquestioned, and forms the basis of tribal community. Sympathy may be positive or negative, in the sense that it attracts a perceived quality to a perceived self identity, or it gives love and assistance to the unfortunate and needy.

Origin of the words

Sympathy comes from Middle French sympathie, from Late Latin sympathia, from Ancient Greek συμπάθεια (sumpatheia), from σύν (sun, “with, together”) + πάθος (pathos, “suffering”).

The word 'empathy' is a twentieth-century borrowing of Ancient Greek ἐμπάθεια (empatheia, literally “passion”) (formed from ἐν (en-, “in, at”) + πάθος (pathos, “feeling”)), coined by Edward Bradford Titchener to translate German Einfühlung. The modern Greek word εμπάθεια has an opposite meaning denoting strong negative feelings and prejudice against someone.


Compassion can form a base for both empathy and sympathy, and each may be seen as aspects of wisdom, or the means through which wisdom is synthesized. Sympathy also involves caring, but a compassionate sense of assistance and protection for those who are poor and less fortunate. Empathy is expressed when trying to feel someone else’s feeling who generally is known to you.

This video offers a clear and concise overview of the differences between sympathy and empathy:

Examples of empathy and sympathy

To quote an example here: A man goes to hear a lecture. He may hold the following opinions after the encore.

Empathy: "I understand the writer's empathetic study of the subject."

Sympathy: "I can only sympathize with the writer's total lack of knowledge."

It is possible to be empathetic and not sympathetic at the same time. For example: If a person gambles and loses all his money, you may feel empathetic and try to analyze the reason for doing so but you will not be sympathetic towards him as it is his fault entirely in losing the money. On the other hand, you can both empathize and sympathize at the same point. If someone loses a loved one to a disease, you will feel sympathy for them and, if you have ever lost a loved one yourself, you are likely to empathize with their position.

Another example that captures the difference between empathy and sympathy: "When I think about the abuse the serial killer endured as a child, I feel empathy, however I simply cannot sympathize with the choices he made as an adult."

When one exhibits empathy a person doesn't necessarily have to agree with the conclusions being drawn by the person who they are empathizing with. For example, one may empathize with the loss of a loved one but may not agree with another person that the loss be avenged violently.

Empathy as a communication skill

Empathy can be employed as a communication skill. Empathy can allow great communicators to sense the emotions of an audience and is the mutual understanding and inspiration communicated to the audience. A lack of empathy involves a poor sense of communication that fails to understand the perspective of the audience. An audience may feel a positive or negative sympathy to both the communicator and the message as it is transmitted in communication. Empathy can also be found in the artist, musician, and drama, as well as the audience.

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Comments: Empathy vs Sympathy

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Anonymous comments (13)

April 22, 2009, 4:12am

I believe that sympathy is a feeling of sorrow for someones situation or condition. Empathy speaks more of having a personal understanding of someones situation or condition. For example, if a person is profoundly afraid of cats and you are similarly afraid of dogs this means you can empathize with this person's fear as you can relate on a personal level based on your life's experience. To sympathize with this person you can only feel sorry for this person situation as a cute little dog or cat comes they're way and the person is terrified!! However you do not understand how they can be fearful of a cute usually harmless animal. That's my take on it anyway.

— 68.✗.✗.3

December 18, 2011, 8:58pm

For the difference between the two can explained if we use a politician as an example.
Let us take the former USA President G W Bush. George Bush was born with the proverbial spoon in his mouth, so when he says he has sympathy because the economy is bad he is making a true statement, but if he says he feels empathy for the many poor people who are being hurt by the current high prices he is telling a lie, because he has never seen a poor day in his entire life, so how can he empathize when he never experienced being poor.

— 72.✗.✗.42

November 17, 2011, 7:25am

@ Hope this sums it up for your:

Event: Someone lost his father and is crying silent tears at his funeral

- The observer feels Empathy = the observer lost one of his relatives before and can relate or link that person's sadness to his own personal experience in life.

- The observer feels Sympathy = the observer still doesn't know how sad or painful it is to lose a relative, but can understand the grief of that person.

— 89.✗.✗.233

February 8, 2012, 4:50pm

The article is correct. σύν in ancient Greek is "sun" and "syn-" and "sym-" are both descendants of that.

— 67.✗.✗.66

January 6, 2014, 9:37pm

empaty is something what we learn in very young age 1-3. we acpepting that from our parents from that parents feeling and caring about us. if we alow in our older age to show that empathy in front of other people that empaty will grow up with us. thats depends about our community and our social life. everyone have that inside...

— 77.✗.✗.21

April 26, 2013, 6:48am

This article is not accurate. Empathy means identifying with someone. Then you have sympathy or antipathy for their point of view. See "Empathy Love it or Loath it"
On Prezi.com

— 195.✗.✗.69

June 18, 2012, 6:52am

i still don't get it :O

— 27.✗.✗.153

February 8, 2012, 4:42pm

Regarding the origin of the word sympathy, you say "from σύν (sun, “with, together”)". Shouldn't it be (syn,"with, together")? Just sayin'.

— 99.✗.✗.64

December 14, 2011, 5:12am

"Sympathy comes from the Latin sympatha, from Greek...literally: to suffer together or 'feeling with.' "

Doesn't this prove more relevant to "empathy"? To my understanding empathy is more about taking on the pain/suffering of the empathized. Such a tricky pair of words, huh?

— 50.✗.✗.119

December 14, 2013, 8:48am

"Sympathy essentially implies a feeling of recognition of another's suffering while empathy is actually sharing another's suffering."

I think this sentence shown above may be modified for better explanation;

Empathy essentially implies a feeling of recognition of another's suffering while sympathy is actually sharing another's suffering

— 14.✗.✗.65

May 31, 2012, 3:10am

too much empathy can damage you .its better to sympathise then empathise.empathy can lead to depression,so always balance

— 14.✗.✗.74

June 9, 2012, 4:47am

You don't have to have the same experience to have Empathy. I am very sensitive to the feelings and emotions of others and I am able to put myself in their shoes and feel the same suffering and emotions as they are. Even when they are not a close family member or friend.
I have sympathy for people when they are not a close family or friend and there is a certain malicious intent like liars, thieves and cheaters. I see them making bad choices and I feel sorry for them When bad things happen to good people I feel empathy. When Bad things happen to people making the wrong choices I feel Sympathy

— 98.✗.✗.96

June 24, 2010, 7:23am

When I first searched for the meaning of this words, I came to know that these words are the same. Just kidding. Honestly, I don't know, someone help me!!! please

— 12.✗.✗.13


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