Last updated on October 31st, 2023 at 08:35 pm
Sympathy and empathy often appear in similar contexts, but are they the same? If there’s a difference between them, what is it? Let’s take a closer look.
Sympathy vs. empathy explained:
Sympathy and empathy are both nouns; their verb forms are sympathize and empathize.
- Sympathy describes the feeling of “being sorry for somebody; showing that you understand and care about somebody’s problems”.
- Empathy describes “the ability to understand another person’s feelings, experience, etc.”
Psychiatric Medical Care describes the difference between sympathy and empathy as, “[sympathy] is more of a feeling of pity for another. Empathy is our ability to understand how someone feels while sympathy is our relief in not having the same problems”.
The general consensus is that sympathy and empathy are actually quite similar, and the difference between them is more nuanced than most confused words typically are. In fact, if you look them up on Thesaurus.com, you’ll see that they show up as synonyms for each other. Nevertheless, they do differ, and to summarize the difference:
- Empathy describes an intellectual understanding or ability to see how and why someone suffers or is suffering.
- Sympathy describes participating in that suffering or feelings of pity oneself.
The history of sympathy and empathy
If we look at the history, sympathy was around long before empathy was first introduced by the German philosopher Rudolf Lotze, in 1858. Sympathy comes from the Greek word sympathes, which directly translates to, “having a fellow feeling, affected by like feelings”. “Sympathes” is based on the also Greek root words ‘syn‘, “together” + pathos, “to suffer, feel”; so, combining them we get “to suffer and feel together“.
Empathy is from the German word Einfühlung, which translates to “in + feeling“; so, an in-feeling. Einfühlung is actually Lotze’s translation of the Greek word empatheia, which also uses pathos (how cool!), + en, “in”. Right, so to compare them, we have an “in feeling” and a “together feeling”, and apparently the feeling generally being suffering applies to both.
Examples with sympathy
“Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.” – Martin Luther King Jr.
Americans overwhelmingly voice sympathy for the Israeli people in the current conflict, and there’s widespread support for sending humanitarian aid. (Anthony Salvanto, CBS News, 19 Oct. 2023)
His heartfelt speech at the memorial service evoked feelings of deep sympathy among the attendees.
Many people expressed sympathy on social media for the victims of the natural disaster.”
“The teacher’s empathy and sympathy for her students made her a beloved figure in the school.”
Examples with empathy
“As you get older you have more respect and empathy for your parents. Now I have a great relationship with both of them.” – Hugh Jackman
Blonde clearly wants us to feel for Norma Jeane, but it dwells on her pain so obsessively … that the movie’s empathy feels like another form of exploitation. — Justin Chang, NPR, 23 Sept. 2022
Artificial Intelligence is getting smart enough to express and measure empathy.—Lisa Bannon, WSJ, 7 Oct. 2023
“I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” – Maya Angelou
The film likely benefitted from the empathy of many audiences separated from their own families by COVID restrictions.—Patrick Frater, Variety, 18 Oct. 2023
Synonyms of empathy
Synonyms of sympathy
Origin of sympathy
1570s, “affinity between certain things,” from French sympathie (16c.) and directly from Late Latin sympathia “community of feeling, sympathy,” from Greek sympatheia “fellow-feeling, community of feeling,” from sympathes “having a fellow feeling, affected by like feelings,” from assimilated form of syn- “together” (see syn-) + pathos “feeling” (from PIE root *kwent(h)- “to suffer”).
Origin of empathy
1908, modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein “in” + Fühlung “feeling”), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) as a translation of Greek empatheia “passion, state of emotion,” from assimilated form of en “in” (see en- (2)) + pathos “feeling” (from PIE root *kwent(h)- “to suffer”). A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer’s ability to project his personality into the viewed object.
Check out other commonly confused words
- Is it Elude or Allude?
- When to use Infer vs Imply
- What’s the difference between Invoke and Evoke?
- Accept vs Except: What’s the difference?
- Is it Allot, A lot or Alot?
- Which is it: Allusion or Illusion?
- Insure, ensure or assure?
- Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of sympathy.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/sympathy. Accessed 29 October, 2023.
- Harper, Douglas. “Etymology of empathy.” Online Etymology Dictionary, https://www.etymonline.com/word/empathy. Accessed 29 October, 2023.