Empathy versus sympathy

Lesson: learning the difference between empathy and sympathy

empathy: the 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
—Merriam-Webster

sympathy: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other
—Merriam-Webster

In essence, empathy means you understand the feelings of another person. Sympathy means that you can’t understand exactly how another person feels, but you still feel sorry for their situation.

Let’s look at some examples to help clarify the difference.

situation: Your friend is sad because her pet rat ran away last night.

empathy example: I empathize with you. My pet rat ran away three months ago.
sympathy example: I’m sorry that happened, and I can sympathize with you, but I never had a pet rat.

situation: Your friend is mad because he got an F on a math test.

empathy example: I got an F on the test, too. I can empathize with you.
sympathy example: I got a B on the test, but I can sympathize with you because no one likes to fail a test.

situation: Your friend got a stain on her dress.

empathy example: You got a stain on your dress, too? I can empathize. Check out this ketchup stain I got when I ate my hot dog at lunch.
sympathy example: Uh-oh. You got a stain? Thank goodness I am a freak of nature and have never had a stain on my clothes. But, still, I sympathize with you because you are my friend and I hate to see you in distress.

Quiz
Test your skills with this quiz. Fill in the blank with either empathize or sympathize. The answers are at the bottom.

1. I’m sorry that shark bit your hand off. I _______ with you, even though I still have both of my hands.
2. That’s terrible that a seagull pooped on you. I can _______ because a seagull pooped on me when I was little.
3. No way—an elephant stepped on your banjo? I totally _______ with you because an elephant also broke my banjo.
4. Your dog has been howling for five days straight? I _______ with you,  but that’s why I’ll never own a dog.

1. sympathize 2. empathize 3. empathize 4. sympathize

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3 thoughts on “Empathy versus sympathy

  1. I had apprently been using the two terms interchangeably until I read this post. I am now able to increase my linguistic pedantry in casual conversation by approximately 1.5% and for that, I thank you.

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