Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy is the ability to experience the feelings of another person. It goes beyond sympathy, which is caring and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words are used similarly and often interchangeably (incorrectly so) but differ subtly in their emotional meaning.

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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." "Trying to lose weight can feel like a uphill battle at first."
Relationship Personal understanding Understanding the experience of others
Nursing context A doctor relating with a patient because he or she has been in a similar situation or experience Doctors comforting patients or their families
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

The feeling of sympathy emerges from the recognition that another person is suffering, in contrast to empathy, where the other person's pain or suffering is felt. A person expresses sympathy, but shares empathy. The empathic feeling may be brief, and the person feeling it is said to "put themselves in the other person's place."

Of the two, empathy is a deeper feeling, but sympathy can be just as honest and heartfelt. However, empathy can forge a deeper and more meaningful connection, thus serving as a bridge for greater communication between individuals or between a leader and his or her followers.

Relationship Between Empathy and Sympathy

The basis for both sympathy and empathy is compassion, a blending of understanding and acceptance of others that can be seen as being derived or enhanced by knowledge and wisdom.

Compassion recognizes the "me" in "you," the shared commonality of feelings between individuals. Both sympathy and empathy imply caring for another person, but with empathy, the caring is enhanced or expanded by being able to feel the other person's emotions.

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


Empathy and sympathy are not mutually exclusive, nor are they always felt in tandem. For example, people who lose a loved one can receive sympathy from many, but only those who have experienced a similar loss are able to empathize truly.

A case where there might be sympathy, but no empathy, could include someone who files for bankruptcy. Most people who care about that person would feel sympathetic to their situation — and maybe pity them, a feeling sometimes closely related to sympathy — but relatively few would be capable of empathizing, as only a minority of people ever go through the experience of filing for bankruptcy themselves.

Empathy, Sympathy, and Humanity

The capacity to sympathize and empathize are considered vital for a sense of humanity — i.e., the ability to understand one's fellow humans and their problems. People who lack this capacity are often classified as narcissistic, sociopathic, or in extreme cases, psychopathic. However, these terms are only applicable if a person consistently lacks the capacity to sympathize or empathize with others.

In general, there are many cases where people may not feel sympathetic or empathetic due to lack of knowledge or because their experiences are different; this does not imply abnormal behavior. On the other hand, some people are overly empathetic and can eventually be overwhelmed by the negative feelings they take on from their relationships and encounters with other people.

Origin of the Words

The word "sympathy" comes from the ancient Greek sunpathos, meaning "with/together" and "suffering." The word was modified in Late Latin to sympathia and then in Middle French to sympathie.

"Empathy" was coined in 1909 by British psychologist Edward B. Titchener. While the word's spelling borrows from an ancient Greek word, empátheia, which meant "passion," Titchener used "empathy" for the purpose of translating a German word (einfühlungsvermögen) and its concept of shared feeling.

Interestingly, in modern Greek, empátheia no longer has positive connotations. It instead refers to negative feelings or prejudices against another person.


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Comments: Empathy vs Sympathy

Anonymous comments (6)

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

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

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

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 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


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