Empathic vs. empathetic?

The adjectives empathic and empathetic derive from the noun empathy, but empathic is the standard English form.

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What is the difference between empathic and empathetic?

English speakers can use empathic and empathetic to describe anything characterized or related to the noun empathy, but according to Garner’s Modern American Usage (GMAU), only “empathic” is standard for describing something that ‘relates, displays, or elicits empathy’ (Garner 329). 

While “empathetic” is the non-standard synonym of “empathic,” we still see the term rising in popularity amongst modern, psychological texts. How could this be? 

One explanation for this involves how “empathetic” is analogous to “sympathetic,” which is the quality of showing, expressing, or feeling pity toward someone or something (“Sympathetic” 1760). However, empathy and sympathy are entirely different concepts, so it’s crucial to avoid “empathetic” if the correct term is “sympathetic.” 

Likewise, it’s common to see empathetic regarding “empathetic responses,” which is a clinical technique that allows therapists to convey empathy toward their patients in a professional manner. For example, you might hear a counselor follow-up with:  

  • “It sounds like you may be feeling sad.”
  • “I can see you’re having a hard time.”
  • “Dealing with the loss of a loved one must have been hard for you.”

In other words, something that is “empathetic” may not be a form of genuine empathy, but rather a form of sympathy masked as empathy

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand someone from their point of view by vicariously experiencing other people’s emotions, thoughts, or perceptions. However, the concept of empathy isn’t an innate experience for everyone, nor is it a supernatural gift (such as an empath). Some people learn how to be empathic as they mature, while others go their whole lives without it at all. 

Most people agree that we cannot literally feel another person’s emotions, so a large part of empathy requires the ability to perceive emotions accurately, identify personal experiences, and apply those feelings toward another person’s point of view. We often refer to this phenomenon as “projection,” or mirroring one’s own emotions toward another person or object. 

Is empathy real?

The idea of projection and empathy has long been a source of philosophical debate regarding artwork and audience response. In this sense, empathy is ‘the projection of feelings or thoughts’ that allows someone to pick up personal connections to art because they see a part of themselves in an artist’s work. 

If you’re somebody who connects to songs, books, or paintings, you might be quick to disregard the act of empathizing as an intellectually resourceful experience. After all, you’re aware that your personal feelings generally have nothing to do with the artist. 

The same conceptual dissonance occurred when author David Foster Wallace pondered the value of fiction, where he provided a less clinical perspective of empathy

“We all suffer alone in the real world; true empathy is impossible. But if a piece of fiction can allow us, imaginatively, to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also, more easily, conceive of others identifying with our own.”
–– DFW, Rev. Contemporary Fiction 

As noted by DFW, the ability to empathize as a writer and a reader is “nourishing,” “redemptive,” and it can allow people to feel “less alone inside.” So, whether empathy is a projection or not, it can function as an emotional survival mechanism. 

Some researchers would also argue that empathy plays a vital role in emotional intelligence, which is the capacity to process emotions and utilizing that information for logic and cognitive activities. For instance, someone with a high emotional IQ is self-aware of their emotions, regulates their feelings, adapts easily, and maintains a positive outlook on life. 

Additionally, people with high emotional intelligence are socially aware, which requires empathy to maintain healthy relationships. In this sense, someone who empathizes well can: 

  • Understand and maintain personal boundaries
  • Perceive and anticipate the needs of others 
  • Collaborate in team environments 
  • Manage interpersonal conflicts in a constructive manner 

There are other attributes of empathy regarding social environments, but the ability to understand other people’s feelings plays a symbiotic role in how we understand and regulate ourselves, and influence those around us. 

People can struggle with empathy for several reasons, whether it’s a mental illness, learning disabilities, trauma, or growing up in environments or cultures where empathy is discouraged. So if you’re worried about your own empathy, it’s best to avoid self-diagnosing through Dr. Google and leave those tasks to the professionals. 

Empathy vs. sympathy?

Sympathy is similar to empathy, except it’s a form of recognition and pity toward another person’s emotions or experiences. For example, sending your co-worker a card that says “get well soon” or “my condolences” is a form of sympathizing. Helping someone to their feet when they fall is a sympathetic gesture. 

Such examples highlight an effort to comfort another person or show concern for their well-being, but they are not always the same concept as empathy. An empathic person doesn’t just feel sympathy for someone else–– they assume to experience and understand what another person feels.

What does empathetic and empathic mean?

The adjectives empathic and empathetic share the same definition: showing the ability to comprehend and share another person’s emotional state. Example sentences include: 

  • Empathic people are likely to attract narcissistic people.” 
  • “An empathic person feels the sadness of others.” 
  • “It’s difficult to watch the news when you’re an empathetic person.”
  • “The mother was empathetic toward her daughter.” 

Synonyms

Affectionate, commiserative, compassionate, considerate, feeling, humane, kind, loving, merciful, perceptive, sensitive, softhearted, tender, understanding, warmhearted. 

Antonyms

Callous, cold-blooded, coldhearted, hard, harsh, heartless, inconsiderate, inhumane, insensate, insensitive, merciless, obdurate, oppressive, ruthless, severe, thoughtless, unfeeling, unsympathetic. 

Etymology of empathic and empathetic

According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the word empathetic entered the English language in 1912, while other sources believe the term emerged from English psychologist Edward Titchener in 1909. 

Indeed, Titchner introduced English empathy and empathic, but the words “empathetic,” “empathically,” and “empathetically” are absent from Titchener’s early publications, including his 1928 “A Textbook of Psychology.”

What we know for sure is that the word empathy is Titchener’s translation of German Einfühlung, which derives from ancient Greek empatheia (em- for ‘in’ + -pathos for ‘feeling’) (Glynnis 174). 

Empathic or empathetic: which word should I use?

If you want to play it safe, use empathic to relate the general concept of empathy and empathetic for describing specific clinical techniques. Otherwise, it’s generally acceptable to use empathic and empathetic interchangeably (and especially to avoid word redundancy). 

How to use empathic in a sentence?

  • “… it’s essential that you make an intentional effort to work more empathic goals into your business …” –– Forbes
  • “…narcissists think they are empathic, when in reality they are not.” –– Psychiatric Times
  • “… different brain systems support emotional and cognitive empathy and empathic concern.” –– NPR

How to use empathetic in a sentence?

  • “… when leaders are empathetic toward their employees, the employees are empathetic toward the business.” –– Forbes
  • “An empathetic response reassures the other person that you’re seeing the situation from their side and sharing in their suffering.” –– The New York Times
  • “Now is the time to build more equitable—and empathetic—financial services.” –– Fast Company

Additional reading for empathic vs. empathetic

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Test Yourself!

Before writing your next article, see how well you understand the difference between empathic and empathetic with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false: “empathetic” is the standard adjective as opposed to “empathic.”
    a. True
    b. False
  2. The meaning of “empathetic” is often confused with ___________. 
    a. Sympathize
    b. Emphatically 
    c. Sympathetic
    d. Empathize 
  3. The word empathy originates from _________. 
    a. Greek empatheia
    b. Greek sympatheia
    c. German Einfühlung
    d. A and C
  4. Which of the following is not a synonym of empathic or empathetic
    a. Commiserative
    b. Humane
    c. Obdurate
    d. Merciful
  5. Which of the following is not an antonym of empathic or empathetic
    a. Callous
    b. Merciful
    c. Insensate
    d. Obdurate

Answers

  1. B
  2. C
  3. A
  4. C
  5. B

Sources

  1. Dimaggio, G. “Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Rethinking What We Know.” Psychiatric Times, 18 Jul, 2012. 
  2. Emotional intelligence.” APA Dictionary, American Psychological Association, 2020. 
  3. Empath.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  4. Empathetic.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  5. Empathetic.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2020.
  6. Empathic.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  7. Empathize.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  8. Empathy.”The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2020. 
  9. Empathy.” APA Dictionary, American Psychological Association, 2020. 
  10. Goldfarb, A. “What to Say When People Tell You Their Coronavirus Fears.” The New York Times, 3 Jul 2020. 
  11. Garner, B. “Empathic; empathetic.” Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009, pp. 329. 
  12. Glynnis, C. “Empathy.” The Oxford Dictionary of World Histories, Oxford University Press, 2002, pp. 174. 
  13. Harper, D. “Empathic (adj.).” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2020. 
  14. McCaffery, L. “An Interview With David Foster Wallace.” Rev. Contemporary Fiction, Samizdat, 23 Feb 2005. 
  15. Newman, D. “Why Business Must Strike A Balance With AI And Emotional Intelligence.” Forbes, 7 June, 2020. 
  16. “Sympathetic.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, pp. 1760. 
  17. Sympathize.” Cambridge Dictionary, Cambridge University Press, 2020.
  18. Sympathy.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2020.
  19. Tait, B. “The Importance Of Empathy In Leadership.” Forbes, 6 Feb 2020. 
  20. Titchener, E.B., (1909). “Lectures on the experimental psychology of the thought- processes.” Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences, Cross Dialogues Association, 2014. 
  21. Titchener, E.B. “Memory-image and image of imagination.” A Textbook of Psychology, The MacMillan Company, 1928, pp. 417. 
  22. Vedantam, S. “How to exercise your empathy.” NPR, 31 Aug 2020.