Chances are you’ve been in a situation where you needed to sympathize or empathize. You can find these words in many dictionaries, but they differ in meaning.
Sympathy is a sense of pity or compassion for someone else’s suffering. Empathy, on the other hand, requires the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experience their feelings.
Few pairs of English words get muddled up so easily as empathy and sympathy. They sound similar when spoken and they’re often used structurally and stylistically in the same way. But they have very different meanings.
Sympathy describes a feeling of pity for someone’s negative circumstances or feelings. You might feel sympathy for a friend who’s having trouble falling asleep at night or a family member who has cancer. Sympathy can also refer to the emotional support you give someone who’s suffering.
Empathy is about understanding and sharing another person’s feelings, imagining yourself in their position. It requires you to put yourself in their shoes, but it’s not the same as pity. The word empathy entered English in the late 1800s to describe a specific type of emotion, translated from the Greek empatheia. It’s used to refer to a particular emotional connection and is often followed by the word “with.” The same applies to its adjectival form, sympathize.
The word “sympathy” is sometimes used as an umbrella term for a range of emotions related to someone else’s suffering. It is often compared to empathy because they both involve understanding another person’s feelings. However, they differ in their focus. While sympathy is a feeling of compassion and sorrow, empathy is more focused on personally identifying with and sharing another person’s experience, especially if it is a negative one. Empathy can even lead to pity or a strong desire to help someone in need.
Sympathy and empathy have different meanings and should not be confused. They are often muddled together in speech and writing because they share the suffix “-pathy” which is derived from the Greek word pathos, which means the relationship between feelings and emotion (and also suffering). Sympathy has been around for 300 years longer than empathy, but it’s important to understand their differences. Otherwise, you might accidentally offend someone with your mistaken use of the two words.
While both empathy and sympathy have a common root word in pathos (“feelings of sorrow or pity”), they are not synonymous. Empathy is more personal than sympathy and requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and feel their emotions as if they were your own.
Sympathy is more of a general feeling for others who are experiencing difficult circumstances. You may feel a sense of pity or compassion for the struggles of people in your social group, geographic area, or racial identity.
Both empathy and sympathy can be powerful tools for building relationships. However, it is important to understand the difference between these two emotions and use them correctly. The next time you are chatting with a coworker or friend, remember to choose your words wisely. Avoid making the mistake of comparing your own struggles to theirs, as this can come across as insensitive and hurtful. Be sure to check out Grammarly’s FREE online writing tool for more grammar help.
Few pairs of words get confused as often as sympathy and empathy. The confusion likely stems from the fact that they share the same etymological origin, a suffix derived from the Greek word pathos, meaning “feelings.” They also sound similar when spoken and are used structurally and stylistically in the same way.
Sympathy is a feeling of pity for someone’s misfortune or hardship. It is generally thought that this type of emotion stems from the maternal and paternal instincts to protect children, infants, and the sick.
Empathy is a deeper connection that includes actually sharing another person’s feelings. It’s the reason most cards designed to be given to people in mourning have the phrase “Our Sympathy” on them. To demonstrate empathy, you would say things like, “I’m sorry to hear about your loss. It must be difficult to be so sad and lonely at the same time.” This shows that you understand how they feel, even though it’s not exactly what they’re experiencing themselves.