Empathy vs. Sympathy

the words "empathy vs. sympathy" on a pink background

What’s the difference between empathy and sympathy? These two words are often confused, and it’s totally understandable. On the surface, they have very similar meanings. But since empathy and sympathy do mean different things, let’s dig into what those meanings are and when you should use each one.

What does sympathy mean?
Way back in the mid-1500s, sympathy meant (according to dictionary.com) “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.”

Sympathy’s meaning has evolved since then, and now we use it to describe feelings of pity or sorrow for people who have experienced or are experiencing misfortune.

Example: Suzie got an A on the test, but she felt sympathy for Jane, who got an F.

What does empathy mean?
Empathy entered the English lexicon in the 1800s primarily as a psychological term to describe the idea that a person could project their feelings onto an object.

Like sympathy, empathy’s meaning has also evolved over the centuries. These days, empathy is used to describe a person’s ability to imagine themselves in another’s situation and understand what that person is thinking or feeling.

Example: Suzie had empathy for Jane because they both got an F on the test.

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What’s the difference?
Basically, sympathy means that you feel sorry for someone, while empathy means that you are placing yourself in another person’s shoes, feeling as they feel.

Empathy often begets sympathy, and feeling sympathy often depends on a person’s capacity for empathy. But it’s also possible to be empathetic towards someone and not feel sympathy for them, or feel sympathetic towards them but not empathetic.

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 last week.
    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

This post was written by Erin Servais and Maud Grauer of Dot and Dash, an author-services company focusing on women authors.

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