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Empathy vs. Sympathy

Few pairs of English words get confused as often as sympathy and empathy. In speech and writing, the words get muddled up, despite having different meanings. The confusion probably comes as empathy and sympathy have similar definitions, sound similar when spoken, and they are used structurally and stylistically in the same manner. However, they have different meanings and it’s important to understand the difference between empathyand sympathy.

Definition of Sympathy and Empathy

  • Empathy is a noun, meaning the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
  • Sympathy is a noun, meaning the feelings of pity or sorrow for someone’s situation.

What is Sympathy?

Sympathy is tied up with the idea of sorrow and pity. If you havesympathy for someone, you feel sorry for them. Sympathy even suggests that you may be suffering distress yourself as a result of your feelings of pity for another’s misfortune. Often, we use the preposition for after sympathy. Examples:
  • I feel sympathy for the poor people of the world.
  • We have no sympathy for you – it’s your own fault.

What is Empathy?

In essence, having empathy means you understand somebody’s situation, usually a problem that they have. Normally, empathy suggests that you understand someone’s issue because you have also had some experience with a similar circumstance, i.e. empathy means you fully understand it. Often, we use the preposition with after empathy. Examples:
  • John had some empathy with Mike’s situation; he too had gone bankrupt in the past.
  • Lance finds it difficult to have empathy with poor people, as he has always been rich.
Remember: Empathy does not always need to have a negative connotation.
  • You’re getting married? I have some empathy with that, as I tied the knot just last week!

Empathize vs Sympathize

Empathy and sympathy can both be used as verbs, with the differences being the same as those in the noun form of the words.
  • Empathize is a verb, meaning to understand someone’s situation.
  • Sympathize is a verb, meaning to feel sorry for someone.
However, with both words we would normally use the preposition with. Examples:
  • We empathized with the Smiths’ predicament, as we knew how tricky filling out insurance claims could be.
  • Those who sympathize with criminals should be ashamed of themselves.
  • Can I empathize with the substitute teacher? Sure, because I know how hard it is to work with kids that age.
  • Cancer is a terrible disease. We should sympathize with anyone who suffers from it.

Sympathetic vs Empathetic

Sympathy and empathy can also be used as adjectives, with the differences being the same as those in the noun and verb forms.
  • Empathetic is an adjective, meaning showing an ability to understand another’s situation.
  • Sympathetic is an adjective, meaning showing feelings of pity or sorrow for someone’s situation.
  • Jane, who has been deaf since birth, is empathetic toward anyone who had hearing problems.
  • Professor Neal will be sympathetic with anyone who comes to him with a difficult personal problem.

Sympathetic: Other Meanings

Sympathetic has some other meanings, which are sometimes used in art, literature and formal contexts. It is a little bit confusing, because the meaning is much closer to that of empathy and understanding. Don’t worry too much, as this way of using sympathetic is not very common and highly specific.
  • sympathetic character in a book or movie is one that is liked because their actions are understandable.
    • Othello is a sympathetic character, because we can understand his actions were driven by jealousy and Iago’s manipulation.
  • Sympathetic can mean showing support and agreement.
    • We are sympathetic to the Prime Minister’s position and we will fully support the vote.

Sympathetically vs Empathetically

Sympathy and empathy can also appear in adverb form, with the difference in meanings again being the same as those in the noun forms.
  • Sympathetically is an adverb, meaning in a way that shows sorrow or pity for someone’s misfortunes.
  • Empathetically is an adverb, meaning in a way that shows understanding of someone’s predicaments.
  • The doctor listened sympathetically as the patient described her painful symptoms.
  • Nurses are able to work empathetically with patients while remaining professional and efficient.

Other Words Confused with Empathy and Sympathy

Empathy, sympathy and their variants are words with roots in Ancient Greek. As a consequence, other words can sound very similar yet have completely different meanings. Be careful of these words with similar spellings:
  • Emphasis (noun), Emphatic (adjective), Emphasize (verb), Emphatically (adverb). These are related to putting stress or special importance on something.
  • Symphony (noun). A musical band or composition.
  • Apathy (noun) Apathetic (adjective). Lack of concern or interest.

Examples of Sympathy and Empathy

Here are some more examples of sympathy, empathy and other variants of the words in sentences:
  • To truly have empathy with a man, you must walk a mile in his shoes.
  • The sympathy I feel for sick people increases every day.
  • Can we have empathy with animals? No. We don’t think in the same way.
  • Jean felt a deep sympathy towards the gorillas. Their habitat was being destroyed.
  • We can empathize with your problem, Nick. However, we feel no sympathy for you.
  • sympathize with your situation at work, but I just can’t help you.
  • Bob and Jan were sympathetic towards the plight of the homeless, so they donated their pay checks to the local shelter.
  • Teachers should always be empathetic towards other teachers.
  • Nathan listened on sympathetically, the descriptions of suffering bringing tears to his eyes.
  • Renee spoke empathetically, letting her audience know she had first-hand experience of the issue.