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Writers oftentimes confuse the two words empathy and sympathy. They are usually used in similar contexts, a death in the family, a job loss, a robbery, etc., but they aren’t the same and have different meanings. So in order to keep our writing precise, we should be careful not to mix either of them up.
Today I want to illustrate the differences between empathy vs. sympathy, showcase their uses in a sentence, and give you some tips to keep track of them. After reading this post, you shouldn’t have any more trouble with these two words.
Empathy is a noun and is defined as, “the ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.” For example,
Empathy is putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to understand that person’s situation. In the example above, the boss, having been late to work himself, had empathy for and understood why the employee was late for work.
Empathy is the newer of the two words, with its first use recorded in 1895. Sympathy, on the other hand, has a first recorded use in the late 1500s.
Sympathy is a noun and is defined as, “a feeling of pity or sorrow for the distress of another.” For example,
So you can clearly see the difference between the two words. Sympathy is a compassion and sorrow one feels for another, but empathy is more focused around personally identifying with or projecting oneself into another’s situation.
You may feel bad for the person who was just laid off from their job, but if you have never been laid off yourself, you cannot have empathy for him or her. You can feel sorry, have compassion, and give them sympathy, but you can’t have empathy for their situation.
This same thought process underlines the two verb forms of empathy and sympathy, empathize and sympathize. Empathize denotes a stronger, more personal sense of shared feeling than does sympathize.
This doesn’t mean, however, that you cannot use sympathy or sympathize to describe “sharing or understanding the feelings of another.” The word sympathize is 300 years empathy’s senior with this meaning. You can share or even understand the pain someone is going through without going through it yourself.
Empathy, and by extension empathize, is the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation. It is much more personal and specific than sympathy.
To give another example, I may sympathize with the person whose house was just burglarized because I can understand how vulnerable it must make one feel, but I cannot have empathy because my house has never been robbed.
Here are two tricks to remember which of these words is which:
You can remember that sympathy deals with sorrows and feeling sorry for someone because it starts with an “S.”
Similarly, you can remember that empathy is more personal and requires you to put yourself in that person’s shoes. Shoes and empathy both have an “E” in them.
The two words sympathy vs. empathy cause a bit of confusion in people’s writing, but they have different meanings.
Empathy is more specific and personal than sympathy. It involves personally putting yourself in that persons shoes and knowing what they are going through.
Sympathy is a more general feeling or sorrow for another person’s situation.