How to Spot the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

How to Spot the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy
Photo: Dragon Images, Shutterstock
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The words “sympathy” and “empathy” are often used interchangeably, but while both refer to how one responds to another’s suffering, they do not mean the same thing or offer the same experience for either you or the person receiving them.

To start, here’s what Grammarly says about the history of empathy and sympathy, and how they are connected:

Of the two words, empathy is the more recent entry into the English language. Sympathy was in use for almost 300 years before empathy’s first written record in the nineteenth century. You might notice that both words contain -pathy, and that’s what makes them sort of similar–they share the same Greek root word pathos, which means “feelings” or “emotion,” but also “suffering” or “calamity.” But while both words deal with emotions, they are still very far from being synonyms.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the capacity to be able to imagine oneself in someone else’s situation, either because you have experienced something similar or because you can understand their feelings to a depth with which it feels as though you’re having them yourself. To be empathetic is to create a shared experience with another person.

Empathy tends to look like someone who really listens, and it can sound like, “That must be so difficult,” and “How are you feeling?” A Kids Book About Empathy (by Daron K. Roberts) explains it in a way both adults and kids can understand:

It’s when you feel with someone who is experiencing something that’s hard, sad, or scary. Empathy means you listen, don’t judge, feel with, and ask questions.

In other words, to empathise is to experience another’s emotion. It is feeling with someone.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is less about experiencing the emotions of another person and more about feeling and expressing your concern, pity, or sorrow over their pain or misfortune. “Sympathy cards,” therefore, are aptly named because they provide a way to you to voice the sadness you feel for their experience.

When someone sympathizes, they feel bad about what someone else is going through without fully walking the emotional journey with them. Sympathy sounds like, “I’m sorry,” or “That really sucks.”

In other words, to sympathise is to commiserate with the struggle another is experiencing. It is feeling for someone.

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