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.

Comparison chart

Empathy versus Sympathy 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." "Trying to lose weight can often feel like an uphill battle."
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).

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.

How social skills develop

Research suggests that social skills develop from a combination of empathy and perspective taking (aka Theory of Mind):

Through their analyses, the researchers have also found out that particularly complex social problems require a combination of empathy and a change of perspective. People who are particularly competent socially seem to view the other person in both ways­—­on the basis of feelings and on the basis of thoughts. In their judgement, they then find the right balance between the two.

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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