Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s the difference?

Empathy vs. sympathy

Empathy is the experience of feeling another person’s emotions or believing that one can feel the emotional energy and presence of others around them. Sympathy is used to describe one’s emotions of sorrow, grief, or pity in reaction to another person’s misfortune.

English speakers are accustomed to the idea of sympathy and empathy in our daily lives. We might send a co-worker a sympathy card after they experience a time of hardship or try to offer support to a friend in need. Anyone can Google search the correct way to offer condolences, but it takes a certain level of emotional intelligence to provide comfort for others. As we uncover the topic of empathy vs. sympathy, we’ll come to a better understanding of how these words have different meanings and how to effectively use both.

What is the difference between sympathy and empathy?

Sympathy is generally associated with the act of comforting someone or showing care for another’s well-being, but the use of sympathy isn’t restricted to the event of sadness. In general, the word sympathy is a state of being where one person is relating in accordance with something or someone outside of themselves.

In essence, sympathy is the one word we can use to describe a person’s feelings toward a situation where there’s a shared point of view. The experience of sympathy is not as strong as the feeling of empathy, most likely because it is more grounded in a shared understanding and logic.

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Empathy is an experience of sharing one’s perceived emotions of another. We empathize with somebody based on our point of view and personal experience. Although we can come close to understanding how somebody feels in their circumstances, it’s impossible to share or truly know how another person feels. Empathy is not shared, it is felt, and unlike sympathy, the same experience of empathy may not exist between other people.

Psychologists and art critics alike use the notion of empathy to describe how people emotionally to connect to the world with the concept of projection. Understanding projection requires a level of emotional intelligence, as it relies on someone to be aware of what they’re feeling and why.

Projection occurs when we associate empathetic responses to something we have imagined onto another person or object, entirely. Empathy is less-logical than sympathy because the experience of empathizing may not correspond to how another person feels in reality. Empathy exists because we feel something and not because it’s real.

Empathy vs. sympathy

Brené Brown on sympathy vs. empathy

In 2013 research professor Brené Brown asked, “What is empathy, and why is it very different from sympathy?” Brown’s shorthand response is “empathy fuels connection and sympathy drives this connection.” According to Brown, empathy is a vulnerable choice made to associate something deep within oneself to understand how another person feels. Brown also argues how empathy is a more effective response than sympathy because sympathy is a “silver-lining” response—meaning, sympathy attempts to reason with feelings, rather than validating them.

A sympathetic response, Brown believes, doesn’t make somebody feel better about their state of mind because there’s a lack of human connection. Brown explains how it is the empathic response that emotionally connects people and, in a sense, allows one to feel less alone. In light of Brown’s suggestion, clinical psychologists use the technique of empathic response to structure therapy sessions via cognitive feedback. Also known as active listening, empathic responding is practiced by repeating the patient’s emotion and emotional reasoning back to the patient as they’re processing aloud.

An empathic response validates the patient’s feelings, attempts to understands their emotions, respects the patient’s feelings, offers support, explores the root of emotion with follow-up questions, and requires the counselor to provide a statement of mutual interest (i.e., “I wish that for you too”). Although empathic communication attempts to replicate the connection empathy, the technique falls for in-line with that of a sympathetic response because it is auto-generated, calculated, and thus, insincere. To summarize, we can use Brown’s example of a sympathetic statement as, “I’m over here, and you’re over there.”

How sympathy and empathy are similar

The word sympathy originates from the Greek term sympatheia, or  sumpathēs, which from sym- and pathos translates to common “feelings” and “emotions.” In contrast, the word empathy derives from the translation of the Greek word empatheia, where em- and pathos translates to “in-feeling.” Both words share the root pathos, which is defined as the experience or representation of producing compassion or pity, or the feeling of sympathetic pity. For the ancient Greeks, pathos was an emotion tied to suffering and experience.

In the English language today, pathos is found in words such as antipathy, a deep feeling of aversion, or within scientific terms such as protopathic when denoting dermal sensory nerve fibers (“Empathy,” 174). The word pathetic is tied to pathos as well, because it leads to the emotion of pity, along with pathology, apathetic, sociopath, and psychopath. Each of these words deals with the experience of emotional suffering and, in some capacity, the ability to emotionally process our own experiences.

How to remember the difference between sympathy and empathy?

An easy way to remember the use of sympathy is to associate the “s” with “shared.” Sympathy is a shared experience of emotion. The “e” in empathy can be used to represent “emotional intelligence,” which requires empathy and good judgment to handle interpersonal relationships.

Empathy and sympathy vs. compassion

Many English speakers also confuse empathy with the word compassion, as well. Compassion is more broad in use than sympathy and is used to describe, both, sympathy toward another, accompanied by the “desire” to ease another’s suffering.

A few examples of empathy, sympathy, and compassion occur in modern culture every day, and especially in contrast to watching news programs and infomercials for animal shelters. Most television viewers can register news of a tragedy, understand the scope of other people’s suffering, and share those feelings among other viewers. Once the tragedy directly affects a loved one, however,  the viewer is more likely to feel empathy rather than sympathy. If the viewer is emotionally triggered and begins to react as though they are living through the emotions of another person, the viewer is feeling empathy.

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If we direct this example to animal shelter infomercials, we can confront the misunderstanding of how empathy, sympathy, and compassion are constantly confused for one another. Our instinct is to say we feel empathy because the animal shelter footage is disturbing. However, the point of the commercial is to compel viewers to donate money toward the shelters for the animal’s well-being. In this case, the viewers are feeling compassion because they are experiencing sympathy while feeling compelled to assist in the solution.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is a mass noun used to describe the shared experience of sadness or distress for another person’s misfortune. People often express sympathy while sending greeting cards or  donating money. The word sympathy is synonymous with affinity, kindness, sensitivity, understanding, pity, commiseration, comfort, condolence, consolation, and encouragement.

Sincere sympathy describes an understanding or shared feeling between people, and this is what sets sympathy apart from empathy. Within this context, it is common to hear the phrase, “one’s sympathies,” which is used to formally express one’s pity or sadness for someone else’s suffering. For example,

Our family sends our sympathies to the victims of the tragedy.

The second definition of sympathy is used to express approval or support of an opinion or stance. In this context, then, the phrase “one’s sympathies” is used to show support through shared feelings or opinions.

The second form of sympathy is sometimes used in relation to the word sympathizer, which carries a derogatory connotation. Within this context, the word sympathizer is used to describe a traitor or a group of people who are providing aid to their country’s enemies. For example, the Fifth Column is a term that refers to sympathizers of the four columns, a group of political rebels who attacked Madrid during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 (“Sympathizers”).

How to use sympathy in a sentence

English speakers generally use the word sympathy in its verb form, sympathize, or in its adjective form of sympathetic. For example,

I have sympathy for my co-worker, whose cat recently died.
I can sympathize with nurses who work all night.
We are sympathetic toward students at the underfunded high school.

A sympathetic anecdote

A historical example of the word sympathy is told in a story involving Gertrude Stein and William James, both of whom were profound modernist scholars. As a Radcliffe student of James circa 1893, Stein wrote a famous note to her professor stating, “I am so sorry, but I do not feel a bit like writing an examination paper of philosophy today.” James replied sympathetically with, “I understand perfectly. I often feel that myself” (“James, W.”). 

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What is empathy?

The word empathy is a mass noun describing the understanding or shared feelings of another. In this sense of the word, true empathy requires awareness of other people’s emotions and sensitivity toward their experiences, whether they have explicitly stated so or not.

The way we use commonly use the word empathy corresponds to the early 20th century when the field of clinical psychology evolved scientifically and philosophically. In its modern form, empathy describes the phenomenon of projection, the subjective state in which we imagine something or someone to be feeling an emotion we associate with them.

How to use empathy in a sentence

Empathy is alternatively used as empathetic and empathetically in sentences. For example,

I have empathy for people forced to sleep outdoors.
Brian is empathetic toward women’s rights movements.
They reacted empathetically toward the tragic news from overseas.

The fascinating history of empathy

This contemporary form of empathy derives from German Einfühlung, a philosophical term originating from the eighteenth century as a translation of the Greek empatheia for “feeling into,” or “in-feeling.”

Countless German theorists used Einfühlung to explore emotional connections between humans and nature, and then later as an aesthetical term to convey human’s capacity toward psychological projection onto objects. For instance, Einfühlung became popularized by philosophers such as Robert Vischer and Hermann Lotze, who used the word Einfühlung to describe how people relate themselves to nature, non-living objects, or more specifically –– how people emotionally connect to art.

It is important to note how there are numerous historical discrepancies among scholars today regarding the topic of Einfühlung. However, there was a consensus between philosophers at the time how the more empathy a person feels toward a work of art, the more they can appreciate it. In other words, philosophers suspected people felt more connected toward external objects when they saw or projected themselves as apart of it.

Vischer’s use of Einfühlung was later translated by English psychologist Edward B. Titchener in 1909, who rendered the term Einfühlung to define empathy as “in feeling.” Through Titchener, words such as empathize, empathetic, empath, and empathic all emerged into the English language as we know it today.

Another important note to consider is how Einfühlung is that the term is a noun, not a verb or adjective. The German language had already used the verb sich einfühlen, which means “to empathize.” The German word einfühlsam also exists as an adjective to describe someone who is “sensitive,” “insightful,” or “gentle.”


Summary of empathy vs. sympathy

To summarize, empathy is used toward a state of emotion, sympathy is used to share an understanding or emotional circumstance, and compassion is used to describe feelings of responsibility after experiencing sympathy, itself.


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