What’s the Difference Between Sympathy & Empathy?

Tuesday, January 31 2 min read

The words “sympathy” and “empathy” are often used interchangeably, but they are not synonyms. Their origins are similar, but the words have subtly different meanings and are used in different circumstances. So, how do you know if you’re feeling sympathetic or empathetic?

Sympathy vs. Empathy

Regarding definitions, there is a clear difference between sympathy and empathy. “Sympathy” refers to “feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.”

“I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all.”

Mary Shelley , Frankenstein (1818)

“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind.”

Hunter S. Thompson , Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971)

Feelings of sympathy are typically removed or distant in some way. A person might use this word to convey pity or sorrow for another person’s hardships. They are commiserating. Think of a greeting card from the “sympathy” category. You would send this kind of card to express your sadness and support for someone going through a difficult time. However, you’re not saying you understand the other person’s feelings, or that you know what it’s like to be in their shoes.

“Empathy,” on the other hand, is all about understanding. The word means “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”

Brené Brown , Daring Greatly (2012)

“Animal lovers are a special breed of humans, generous of spirit, full of empathy, perhaps a little prone to sentimentality, and with hearts as big as a cloudless sky.”

John Grogan , Marley & Me (2005)

This feeling is much more connected and intense than sympathy. With empathy, a person can imagine themselves in another person's situation. For example, they might picture themselves experiencing the emotions or suffering of another person. In other words, they understand what it’s like to be in another person’s direct situation. Many actors use empathy to understand the characters they’re playing on stage or screen.

Origins of Sympathy & Empathy

Of the two terms, “sympathy” is the oldest. It came into use in the 1500s and had its root in the Greek words syn , meaning “together,” and pathos , meaning “feeling.” Initially, the term referred to medicines that healed wounds. Then, in the 1600s, it shifted to “conformity of feelings” and kept an intersocial meaning.

“Empathy,” on the other hand, is a relatively new concept. The word comes from the German psychology term Einfühlung , which means “feeling-in.” In an attempt to develop an alternate English translation, two psychologists from Cornell and the University of Cambridge suggested the word “empathy” in 1908 . The Greek roots em and pathos literally mean “in” and “feeling,” respectively.

In the early 1900s, the word “empathy” was primarily used in the artistic world. For example, an audience member might claim to feel empathy while watching a theatrical performance, but that just meant they imagined feelings to deepen the viewing experience. It wasn’t until the mid-1950s that the term became more popular in modern psychology and referred to connections between people.

Today, “sympathy” and “empathy” are still strongly connected, but their nuanced meanings are most present perhaps when expressing feelings of sorrow. Sympathy is “I am sorry for your loss,” while empathy is “I am also feeling your loss.”

Featured image credit: dragana991 / iStock

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