Empathy vs. Sympathy

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Empathy and sympathy are two words in the English language that deal with the feelings of one person toward another. The words refer to the fact that one person tries to understand what is going on in the mind of another. They are often confused and used interchangeably, but they have different meanings.

What is empathy?

The word empathy comes from empatheia, a Greek word meaning passion, physical affection or partiality. Edward B. Titchener translated it into English and it gradually became the word “empathy”.  It is the ability to be able to understand and to some point show, thoughts and feelings for others. Being sad for another’s loss or misfortune is an example of empathy. Empathy is essential in order to feel compassion for another. It doesn’t just mean that you show that you feel the same way – you actually do share the feelings.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy comes from sympatheia, a Greek word meaning suffering and passion. It is a social affinity in which one person can stand with another and be really thoughtful and personal about their feelings. When you express sympathy, you comfort another as they feel happy or sad with this person even though you can’t really relate to what that person is feeling. You do try to make the other person feel better.

How empathy and sympathy are different

A person who empathizes with another can actually feel the same way as this person and experiences the same emotions. A person who sympathizes with another doesn’t really share the feelings but uses words to try to bring some measure of comfort.  In empathy you place yourself in the same place as another, but sympathy is more detached. The words used do illustrate the difference between the two terms.

Example of empathy: “ I know exactly how you feel.”

Example of sympathy: “I am so sorry about what happened.”

Even though empathy and sympathy are different, both are ways of bringing comfort to another, but they express this comfort on different levels. Even though the terms themselves are often misunderstood, they welfare of another is the goal of each one. You may or may not understand the feelings of the other person, but through either empathy or sympathy you try to make them feel better.

Summary

  1. Empathy and sympathy are feelings that bring comfort to another who is going through feelings of grief or happiness.
  2. In empathy, you actually do feel the same way as the other person.
  3. In sympathy, you do not have the same feelings, but you use words to bring a measure of comfort to another.