empathy vs sympathyWhen it comes to empathy and sympathy, people will often use the words interchangeably in attempt to let people know that they can relate to their struggles. By sympathizing or empathizing with someone, we hope to comfort them in times of loss or difficulty. However, it is important to understand that there are innate differences between sympathy and empathy, and the two, while similar, are not the same thing. We will explore the differences between the two, and help draw the line that separates one from the other. Whether we sympathize or empathize with someone often has a lot to do with how we interact or relate to their personality, and having a deeper understanding of personality psychology will help create a personal determinant when we attempt to differentiate between empathy vs. sympathy. While this may seem like little more than an exercise in parsing semantics, it actually goes much deeper than that. For instance, a person who largely identifies as an introvert is going to face different challenges in differentiating between the two than someone who identifies as an extrovert. In the next few sections we will seek to understand sympathy and empathy as their own entities and discover which is more appropriate in the situations that we encounter while interacting with others.

The Etymology and Dictionary Definitions of Empathy vs. Sympathy

Part of what makes it so hard to tell the difference between empathy and sympathy is the fact that both words sound very similar and both concepts espouse similar things in practice. Let’s take a look first at the definitions of the two words and see what conclusions we can draw from those:

Empathythe action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also :  the capacity for this

Sympathy: (1) the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. : a sympathetic feeling. (2)an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.

As you can see, the two are very similar. Certainly, we begin to see a picture emerge. Conventional wisdom holds that where empathy is the feeling of “walking in another’s shoes,” sympathy is more of a feeling of being sorry or bereft, even on behalf of another person. After all, if you were to walk into any card or greeting store, you would likely find a number of “In Sympathy” cards to help express the feeling of loss you may have for another person, even if you are not going through the same situation. Still, the two are very much alike, and you may still want further clarification when it comes to what the exact difference is between the two. The definition alone may not be quite enough to help separate sympathy from empathy, so let’s take a look at the etymology of each word.

Etymology, of course, is the study of the origin of language. Each word can be broken down into roots, suffix, and prefix, and each of those components have an origin; for instance, words with a Latin, Greek, or Germanic root are very common in the English language. So let’s take a look at the etymology of empathy vs. sympathy and see if we are able to discern any further information from that. In this particular case, we see that each word has its root in ancient Greek.

Empathy: Formed from the ancient Greek word empatheia with the prefix en (English: in) + the root pathos (feeling or passion), the word literally means to be “in feeling”.

Sympathy: Also formed from the ancient Greek, the word “sympathy” comes from the old sympatheia and was formed from the prefix sum (with or together) and again with the root pathos (which here can mean either feeling or suffering) and so can here mean either “with suffering”, “together suffering”, or “together feeling”.

This adds a little more clarity in how each words was developed and meant to be used, right? Once we look a little closer we can see the main difference in the two words: to empathize with someone is to assume their feelings upon yourself and allow yourself to feel what they feel.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is more the act of commiseration. It is an acknowledgement that you can not possibly feel the same way or truly share another’s grief, but that you can understand it. It’s a little like the difference between, “I know how you feel”, and “I can imagine what that feels like”. For some reason, of late, sympathy has gotten something of a bad rap, but that’s a little unfair. Both sympathy and empathy have their place in the social sphere and both are valid ways of relating to someone.

The Emotional Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy

When we use sympathy as an emotional tool, we understand that it gives us insight into another’s situation and emotional state of mind. It can be useful, for instance, on a deeper level to develop a firm grasp of empathetic understanding of another person in order to develop the social skills that we need to maintain relationships across all facets of our lives, including romantic relationships and in dating situations.

On the other hand, without attempting to attribute too much of an ulterior motive to (or cheapen the concept of) empathy, a savvy business person or experienced customer service representative can use their developed empathetic proclivities to better serve consumers or customers.  It can also reduce friction between people of different personality types and allow people from all backgrounds to relate to one another by imagining themselves in the other person’s position. Once you take a moment to imagine a person’s background, culture, experiences, and personality, it becomes easier to deal with conflict in certain situations because you are more likely to give a person the same consideration and understanding that you would like in return.

In short, from an emotional standpoint, empathy is very closely related to that golden rule; “treat others as you would like to be treated”. In this instance, you would reverse the statement once you have allowed yourself to empathize with another person and consider how it is that they would like to be treated.

Sympathy serves two major purposes from an emotional standpoint. As we discussed, sympathy is most often referred to in situations where a loss has occurred or when another person is seeking to offer condolences or commiseration in a time of grief, whether brief or prolonged. For instance, you may wish to offer your sympathy to a person who is going through a period of depression. When you sympathize with them, you are admitting that you, in fact, do not know how they feel, but wish to offer your support. This allows you to offer your support without diminishing the person’s own state of mind.

We can also use the word “sympathy” to signal our commiseration with another’s beliefs, mores, or values. This usage is quite different from what we understand the traditional meaning to be. For instance, you’ve probably heard the term, “I am sympathetic to your cause”. This phrase is often used to signal your agreement or cohesion with another person’s ideals, tastes, or preferences. Let’s see what this looks like in practice.

Let us imagine that you are speaking to a friend, and in your conversation you discover that neither you nor your friend are particularly fond of cats. You might even say that both of you absolutely hate cats. In this instance, it can be said that you are sympathetic to your friend’s preference. On the other hand, your preferences, motivations, or values do not need to be identical in order to be considered “sympathetic”. Let’s clarify that. Suppose that in this situation, your friend hates cats, and you love them. However, let us imagine that you do hate aardvarks (just bear with us for a moment!). As long as your distaste for aardvarks is the same as your friend’s distaste for cats, when they tell you, “I dislike cats!” you are perfectly accurate in saying, “boy, I can sympathize with that!”

Empathy vs. Sympathy: 3 Examples in Common Situations

Finally, let us take a look at some common examples of empathy vs. sympathy just to summarize and ensure that we have a complete grasp on what makes the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Situation #1: A friend of yours has had to put her companion, a 15-year-old border collie down due to the dog’s illness. She is understandably heartbroken.

Empathy: In this scenario, if you have never had to experience this kind of loss, you would attempt to imagine the experience from your friend’s point of view. You might consider that she is not only sad about the loss of her dog, but also reflecting with happiness on her happy memories with Fido.

Sympathy: If you have had a similar experience, you may wish to offer your condolences without detracting from or overshadowing your friend’s grief.

Situation #2: You are a fourth grade teacher. You have a new student starting in your class today and the child is visibly frightened.

Empathy: Attempt to imagine what it is like to be a pre-adolescent in a new place. You may not be able to replicate the feeling exactly, but surely you can imagine feeling the way the child does.

Sympathy: Remember what it is like, even as an adult, to be a stranger in a strange place.

Situation #3: You are driving along when someone rear ends your car. The two of you pull over to the side of the road and prepare to exchange insurance information.

Empathy:  Though the situation is not your fault, you might wish to think about how you would like to be treated if it were. Certainly, you’d already be feeling bad, and being berated by a stranger would be unproductive.

Sympathy: We’ve all been at fault for an accident (vehicular or not) at some point. Try and channel that emotion and act accordingly.

By now you should have a deeper understanding of what makes the difference when it comes to empathy vs. sympathy. Knowing how to be compassionate using empathy is a very sought after trait in a friend and partner, and knowing how to relate to the people you care about can only improve and bolster your relationships, whether they are friendships or romantic endeavors. With this knowledge, you can be a great support during difficult times and lend your support when confronted with conflict. In a lot of conflicts, particularly inter-generational conflict, a key piece of crossing the divide and fostering harmony between people is allowing yourself to see another person’s point of view. Having a good grasp of empathy will ultimately lay the foundation for constructive conversations and healthy relationships among coworkers and family members.

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Engaging with Empathy

Last Updated December 2020

  • 1 total hour
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The authentic relationship builder | By Dr. Rina De Klerk-Weyer

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