Sympathy vs. Empathy
I recently received a hub request to write an article on the difference between sympathy and empathy. Because I received my undergrad in Psychology, I had my own thoughts on the differences already, but decided to add to my knowledge by doing some research. I was amazed at how others described the differences and found a few sites that I feel were incorrect in their distinctions. Using my own knowledge as well as definitions found elsewhere, this article will explore the true differences between these two terms. If you have any thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment at the bottom of the page.
Difference between Sympathy and Empathy: My Definitions
Empathy is a much deeper sense of emotion. It's a sense that, along with feeling sympathetic to someone's situation, you can feel that person's feelings and state of being. (Sometimes you can be empathetic and not sympathetic but this isn't as common, e.g., an abuser may understand the feeling of being abused, but still abuses.) Sympathy, on the other hand, is a feeling of understanding the issue and wanting to help the person in need. Most of the time empathy and sympathy are used in a sense of sharing unhappy feelings, but the sharing of happy feelings is also possible. Here are some examples:
Sympathy:I am sorry for your loss. What can I do to help you during this difficult time?
Empathy: I feel and understand your pain; my grandmother passed away last year as well.
Sympathy: A doctor may understand a patient's illness and try to alleviate the pain, but she may not feel his/her distress and pain.
Empathy: A cancer support group can empathize with the radiation therapy of a member and understand his/her fear because they have experienced the procedure as well.
Parts of the Sympathy definitions listed below surprised me because they seem to closely emulate my own definition of empathy - yet the distinctions Wikipedia and Answers.com make about viewpoint help to clarify differences between these two terms.
- like empathy, sympathy involves at least some level of shared feeling with another person
- one can sympathize with a person's interests as well as emotions
- sympathy requires not just shared feeling, but a shared opinion about that feeling.
Sympathy...implies a degree of equal feeling, that is, the sympathiser views the matter similarly to how the person themselves does. It thus implies concern, or care or a wish to alleviate negative feelings others are experiencing.
The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <have sympathy for the poor>
The act or power of sharing the feelings of another; a feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Often used in the plural. Synonym: pity
Sympathy exists when the feelings or emotions of one person give rise to similar feelings in another person, creating a state of shared feeling. In common usage, sympathy is usually the sharing of unhappiness or suffering, but it can also refer to sharing other (positive) emotions as well. In a broader sense, it can refer to the sharing of political or ideological sentiments, such as in the phrase "a communist sympathizer".
The psychological state of sympathy is closely linked with that of empathy, but is not identical to it. Empathy refers to the ability to perceive and directly experientially feel another person's emotions as they feel them, but makes no statement as to how they are viewed. Sympathy, by contrast, implies a degree of equal feeling, that is, the sympathiser views the matter similarly to how the person themselves does. It thus implies concern, or care or a wish to alleviate negative feelings others are experiencing.
The definitions I found on empathy all emphasize shared experience and understanding. They talk about an identification with another person that goes beyond language, that is less intellectual than sympathy and more purely emotional.
- Empathy does not require explanation or language; it's an understanding that happens automatically, often without effort.
- Empathy is a meeting of emotions, not a meeting of minds. You can empathize with someone's direct emotional experience but not with an intellectual cause or goal.
Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or experiencing the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance.
The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner;
Identification with and understanding of another's situation, feelings, and motives; the attribution of one's own feelings to an object; Sympathetic, sad concern for someone in misfortune. Synonym is also pity.
Britannica Concise Encyclopedia:
Ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions. The empathic actor or singer is one who genuinely feels the part he or she is performing. The spectator of a work of art or the reader of a piece of literature may similarly become involved in what he or she observes or contemplates. The use of empathy was an important part of the psychological counseling technique developed by Carl R. Rodgers.
Empathy (from the Greek εμπάθεια, "to suffer with") is commonly defined as one's ability to recognize, perceive and directly experientially feel the emotion of another. As the states of mind, beliefs, and desires of others are intertwined with their emotions, one with empathy for another may often be able to more effectively define another's modes of thought and mood. Empathy is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", or experiencing the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself, a sort of emotional resonance.
Distinctions and Similarities between Sympathy and Empathy
pity for another's pain
occurs without language
expressed through language
What do you think?
Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on September 27, 2015:
Great hub, Robin. This was very interesting to know the difference between the two.
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on July 16, 2013:
I'm sorry you're confused! Maybe read the article again and read the comments. A few people have explained it really well and in a different way. Good luck!
Cheng Li on July 16, 2013:
I apologize if I say something wrong. However, your explanation totally confuses me. There is another explanation saying that sympathy is sharing something bad or grief, while empathy can be used to share either good or bad feelings. Right now I have no idea which explanation is correct.
Student of life on March 04, 2013:
A nurse sees her patients in pain, struggling to do normal activities: she understands the idea of pain and she understands the annoyance and frustration of having a physical limitation. She feels sympathy because she can understand the idea of what they experience.
The nurse is injured and now shares the experience of what her patients have been living through. It is a qualitative difference: understanding the idea with like-mindedness versus sharing the feeling exactly.
This was an actual experience from a nurse. She stated that her sympathy for her patients was real, but that she never really understood what they were actually experiencing for all those years until she herself was injured and lived the experience.
This gave me clarity and now serves as the best way to illustrate the difference, for me. Sympathy is ideation, empathy is actualization.
I do believe empathic people feel others emotions, because I do: a room can be contaminated by stress or hostility, or have a lightness and warmth that draws me in. I actually feel a mood shift when someone walks into a room.
Sharon on November 01, 2012:
Thank you so much for clarifying my confusion. I now have another piece to my puzzle.
The BEST explanation, ever!
Fiona on September 20, 2012:
Empathy, is the sharing of feeling based on differences between the observer and the communicator;
Sympathy, by contrast, is the affective reaction experienced in the observer on the basis of perceived similarity with the communicator.
Lola Morris on August 27, 2012:
I am writing an essay for my english class and my topic is sympathy, this clears the difference between, symptathy and empathy, thanks for writing this article.
jm on June 14, 2012:
Thank you for the example. :)
calvin on March 15, 2012:
Empathy is understanding deeply what another is experiencing (you get it).
Sympathy is empathy plus experiencing the subject's distress (you feel it).
Compassion is sympathy or empathy plus wanting to help.
Gracie on March 12, 2012:
Finally, I got a clear picture of the difference between the two words! Thank you for this article.
Edward dellinger on March 04, 2012:
Sympathy vs Empathy:
The human mind speaks . . . in each individual . . . there are two of us? Menstroika: The Foundation of Insight mapped the circuits of minds via Introspection (viewed by minds-eye). Minds function and process perceptions in Forms. What Forms does Sympathy and Empathy take in order to become memory? Author Dellinger discovered reality is a perception noted and manipulated by the five (5) sensory senses . . . somewhat opposed that of definitions in dictionaries.
Sympathizers view a matter similarly to how the person themselves do. Thus, implies concern, a care or a wish to alleviate negative feelings of others; caring is a good word. Sympathy is a feeling of understanding unusual issues and wanting to help one in need. Note; this condition minds’ see as participation (joining-in). The motive of Sympathizer differs . . . one might attempt to share suffering emotionally (perhaps cry in each other’s arms)?
To Empathize is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes", having experienced an outlook or similar feel. A sort of none emotional resonance. A mind can be empathetic (I understand your problem) and not be sympathetic as managers handling personnel must do (A broker failed her job, because she could not tell a white lie). A Priest might assure or calm a regular parishioner . . . by personal visits (you are not alone, alleviating fear)?
An abuser commits negative acts. Hurt lasts, perhaps a lifetime? He/she understands feeling of abuse, but still abuses.) Sympathy is a feeling of understanding the issue, but gravitates help one in need. A morally correct deed. Most of the time Empathy and Sympathy are used in a sense of sharing. One real — the other a loose understanding. Unhappy & happy feelings are the same. One positive, the other negative. Humans learn to sympathize for negative emotions (hurts, both mental and physical) and correlate a similar knowledge though not emotional expressed . . . in Empathy.
Here are examples:
Sympathy: I am sorry for your loss. What can I do to help you during this difficult time? The actual giving of oneself.
Empathy: I feel and understand your pain; my grandmother passed away last year as well.
Sympathy: A doctor sees differences in patient’s symptoms. He issues a prescription for a placebo. Sympathy is mentally passed (I am, helping you). He certainly does not feel his patient’s distress and pain.
Empathy: There seems to be a lot of colds and viruses this year, you are not alone, stay warm and gargle two times a day, how is your mother?
~~~~ on February 17, 2012:
regardless is like saying "barenaked", I cringe when someone says regardless.
Dr Marie on January 29, 2012:
Ps. I also agree that empathy is mostly cognitive. Sympathy is actually experiencing
Dr Marie on January 29, 2012:
One who studies may have it right but backwards. After years of graduate school and practice as a psychologist, my understanding is that empathy is to understand how someone feels without actually experiencing the feeling yourself. A much better place to help from. Sympathy is to experience the feelings with a person. It can be hard to step back and help a person and see alternative ways to deal with a situation when you are entrenched in the same feelings.
Tom on January 27, 2012:
Here is a FANTASTIC explanation. I agree, by the way, (more or less) with your explanations.
For those citing Latin as the only etymological source, you need to consider also that the morphology of the two words has changed over many, many centuries, and that multiple languages have contributed, as is the case with much of the English language.
Ashwini on January 23, 2012:
Good one! helped me understand the difference easily... thanks
Dr. Noah Richason on January 17, 2012:
Asim, thank you for posting the link to the article, I hope others refer to it. I think it does a fine job clarifying the difference between the two terms, one of which (empathy) that I hold especially dear, at work and at home. I appreciate the hub author's attempt to shed light on a truly confusing distinction, but I agree (for what it is worth) that it was ultimately presented upside down.
anonymous on January 14, 2012:
thanks for the article, really helped me.
i had a similar difference in my mind, but was doubtful about it.
your research has helped me and many others. thank you very much for spending your time in this issue.
Allen on January 14, 2012:
Great article. Now I know what I always feel. You've made things much clearer. Thanks a lot.
Dr. Asim Monpuri on January 13, 2012:
Regarding the difference between Empathy and Sympathy, I think Robin has the interpretation all wrong (the other way around)
Take a look at the definitions once again. Following is a link to an article from the Canadian family physicians journal. This will clarify the difference.
Lorrie on December 13, 2011:
Wow, so many twists and turns of these meanings!
I believe it's a bit more complicated. With sympathy you feel FOR them, doesn't matter whether you have had a similar experience or not (happy, sad, angry, whatever, this bandied about synonym of 'pity' is rather misleading), you have some sort of affinity with what they are feeling because you secondarily feel their pain or you agree with them or can understand what they're going through because the same thing has happened to you. Being sympathetic is not dependent on context or what has lead you to feel this way, it's an act of feeling. It's quite subjective and your feelings are wrapped up within it.
Empathy is actively seeing it from their point of view regardless of your personal feelings so that you can understand what they're going through. It may seem a little more clinical in some respects because it's much more objective, but in some ways it's more selfless as you're more concerned with how they're feeling, although of course understanding what they are going through often leads to sympathy.
The One Who Studies on December 12, 2011:
I have read all of the comments on this blog. Why I am here? Well my ELA teacher wants us to be able to explain the difference between sympathy and empathy tomorrow. Of course, Id Google the difference and study so that i could achieve a good grade on the paragraph or pop essay. However, a lot of the posts on this blog contract each other. A couple of people have said Empathy is to know what they are feeling but does not specifically FEEL, like are in their shoes sort of. This is not the correct explanation for empathy.
Empathy is to know someone else feelings, possible experience, and to lend a hand or cry with them. Most of the time, empathy is used for grief or a negative situation. Quote from Beths post "Instead of feeling sorry for, you?re sorry with and have clothed yourself in the mantle of someone else?s emotional reactions." Empathy, according to what i have learned here, also does not necessarily mean that you have been there before or have the knowledge of what that person feels, due to lack of experience. Then again, that is just another debate in the world like tomatoes being fruits or vegetables. From my point of view, empathy does not mean you have experienced it, quote from AHH's post "It could be because you have direct experience of a similar situation but either way you are imagining or visualising someone else's situation. It's not about your emotional response because you need to forget you are you for a second to be them instead." It is more of a visual and emotion, though getting more out of it than one who sympathizes.
Moving on, sympathy is to know what this person is feeling, to acknowledge it, and to understand it, but it does not affect you emotionally. Sympathy can be known as pity, meaning to feel bad for or to nod your head as the person tells you why they are sad or overjoyed. It does not require experience, though sympathy can quickly be confused with apathy. Apathy is the absence of feelings toward someone, as stated in a couple of posts, is the adjective of a psychopath. It is not apathy because to feel sympathetic or to sympathize or to have sympathy is knowing how they feel.
Lastly, the difference between sympathy and empathy is that empathy is when you feel how someone feels, sympathy is when you know how someone feels. For example, a boy being kicked in his nuts. The bystanders who are boys are empathetic because they feel or felt his pain. The girls who are bystanders are sympathetic because they know it hurts, but cannot feel it. Experience, once again, is a debate worth being debated.
Nina Shilling on December 10, 2011:
Sympathy is to feel FOR the other. Empathy is to feel WITH the other.
bob on November 25, 2011:
I have absolutely no interest in the root meanings of these words as that is irrelevant to me in 2011
however i do have an interest in the current meanings and usage of these today and how they are actually applied in the real world
it would seem that empathy is promoted as the better option over sympathy from most expert "psychobabble" articles i have read over the years
from my experience the benefit of using empathy is thus
"not getting emotionally involved with those who are suffering"
empathy allows you to observe emotion but not "feel it" this works very well in professional situations
showing sympathy to those who are suffering is not encouraged its seen as unprofessional and could encourage some kind of dependency
personally i find the "only give empathy never sympathy" attitude very cold, but i can see the practicality of it
for personal situations when those you care about are involved sympathy seems to be more appropriate
showing someone that you too are feeling their pain
is perfectly natural when you care about them
empathy is a detached calculated response that shows no emotion
that seeks to observe and calculate not share and feel
i think there is a time and a place for both sympathy and empathy
we need them both in different situations too much of either in the wrong situation can be negative :)
Paramjit Singh on November 17, 2011:
A very informative hub.I want to add that in sympathy one suffers with the sufferer which may add to suffering of sufferer.But empathetic fully understands the emotions of sufferer without any invovement so is in a better position to help others in alleviating the suffering.
Max on November 15, 2011:
Myrtle Beach Golf from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina on October 25, 2011:
Excellent Hub. Really accurately clarified the difference between the two.
Thomas on October 19, 2011:
Great Hub. This discussion is great. For instance, many people who do not have children THINK they Empathize with a parent. This is impossible because without EXPERIENCE it is merely theory and conjecture.
Mil on October 14, 2011:
I think it is interesting that studies don't say that 1 in 100 children are born without sympathy. They say they are born without empathy (or at least are going to have a much more difficult time with it), which makes sense. If they were to be born without sympathy, that would imply that when they were born they lacked previous experience that would allow them to sympathize. I know that sounds horrible (the study) - but what they mean is "psychopath" (ok, that doesn't sound better!) - but only a sliver become axe murders, or the like. What I was reading ( which I should find the source and post) is that the other 99.9999% of these children are the ones you know who are really good at manipulating people because they are kind of standing outside the situation and not feeling for the person/people they are manipulating - They also know to respond appropriately in different situations, while in the back of their heads they may be working out why they don't really care. Ack! lol
newbie on October 14, 2011:
I prefer to think of sympathy as compassion, empathy as understanding. In this frame, sympathy allows one to feel compassion towards another human being, whether or not they understand the situation or the pain they are experiencing. I can have sympathy towards someone who has lost their grandmother (citing an example from a prior post) even if I do not know what that person is going through. To have empathy, in my view, is to understand (or to experience the same perspective/emotion/feeling as) another human being. When I empathize with someone, I may understand their situation, but may not have any compassion towards them. I may have experienced the death of my own grandmother and so understand what someone else in a similar situation may be feeling - but I may not necessarily have any compassion towards them. These definitions serve me well, but are not based on a theoretical framework or empirical research - rather, they allow me to distinguish between the two when I have occasion to call upon them.
Bobby O on September 23, 2011:
I feel that both words are essentially the same in that you feel sorry about another's situation. However in sympathy you feel bad due your perceived notion of how the other must feel. While in empathy you feel sorrow for them because you have been in the same,or like situation and virtually know exactly how it feels to be there.
Ghostwind from Outside of your comprehension on September 23, 2011:
I have an objection to both sympathy and empathy being synonymous with pity. I perceive pity having a negative connotation, while empathy and sympathy have positive connotations.
I've often heard many people reject pity. 'I don't want your pity' a person may say. But rarely will you ever hear someone say 'I don't want your sympathy.' I've never heard someone reject another person's empathy.
That's just my opinion. Your mileage may vary.
N Boyle on March 18, 2011:
I haven't had time to read all, but I too, disagree with your conclusion. These terms are quite complex, especially Empathy, however, put simply, I think
Sympathy is when you have had a shared experience. 'That happened to me and this is how I felt..' Often there is an assumption that one person will feel or have responded in the same way. Sympathy is when the feelings are mixed, so that person expressing sympathy isn't aware of what is there's and what is the other person's feelings, thoughts, etc. 'I understand how you feel' is being sympathetic - although this is impossible (to truly understand how another feels). People using sympathy will give you advice and think of ways of helping you that works for them.
Empathy is is trying to see the world from the other person’s perspective. Empathy is a dynamic process, where the person must feel your empathy in order for it to be occurring. The person who is feeling empathetic is aware that they do not 'understand' what the other person is feeling, but they can have 'an understanding' of the other person's feelings and how they have come to feel that way, chosen that path, etc. This skill is what counsellors use to help support people. You don't have to be a drug addict to have an understanding of how someone has come to use drugs. People using empathy will help the other person find ways of overcoming their problem that will work for them (the person with the problem).
Sheila on February 13, 2011:
Wow! Lots of confusion in the comments! The way I understand it, with help of some of the comments, is:
sym- means with. em- means in (borrowed from Kim, thanks , Kim!)
To have Empathy you must have Experience IN the the same type of situation. So to answer Ted K's question above, a man cannot have empathy for a woman in labor but he can have sympathy for her.
Kyra Baker on December 17, 2010:
Kim, you are most welcome, i am glad it brought you comfort.
Empaths are often alone with this.
I am 28 and only this year did i realise.
Its not something explainable, it just is.
I must say that i found it quite funny to see people writing all these things about empathy in an educated tone yet had never lived a day of it.
Kim, you are welcome to join us at the "Empath community" were you will find other's like yourself, they are from all walks of life, men & women, we have all suffered with it yet we are all amazingly liberated when accepted by those at the "Empath Community" because they understand.
I feel at home there and it has helped me tremendously, no more confusion and i am growing and i am happy and healthy.
They are beautiful people and they will accept you and help you with any questions that you may have.
Here is the link, http://empathcommunity.eliselebeau.com request me as a friend if you wish and i will help you settle in.
Much L.O.V.E to you Kim.
kim on November 26, 2010:
Thank you Kyra Baker, for your explanation of what it means to be an empath. I experience, too, what you describe and was moved to write earlier for that reason. I was reluctant to get into it, though, because so few people understand. So thank you for going for doing that.
The example of feeling someone's emotions even when they are lying about them is perfect. I have had to learn that many people are hiding their own emotions even from themselves. I would respond to what seemed so obvious to me only to find out that someone didn't realize their own feelings. Few people appreciate this. And it can be really draining to be around people who bury their feelings. And I often find people projecting their own denied feelings onto me.
It's interesting to read that people with aspergers fall on the opposite end of this spectrum. I think the fact that it is a spectrum is why there is so much confusion. It seems that plenty of people without aspergers are still baffled by the description of a true empath's experience.
richard on November 07, 2010:
as a person diagnosed with aspergers i am very interested in the meaning of empathy because it is common (in the mental health profession) to identify the lack of emapathy as a manifestation of aspegers. The idea that one can in reality experience the feelings of another seems absurd to me...a man or a childless woman can imagine what delivery and labor feel like but cannot know how it feels; similarly a woman can imagine what it feels like to be kicked in the balls but cannot know how it feels...bill clinton is being hyperbolic when he says "i feel your pain"
i am disturbed by the the increasing use and misuse of the word emapathy in public media... so now even congress is urged to be more empathic...
the best presentation i have seen of empathy is the star trek episode titled "the empath" in which this character feels telepathically what someone is feeling and expresses this feeling with the appropriate actions such as crying, laughing, or the facial expressions that move us when a talented actor is performing...
i understand sympathy but empathy belongs in the realm of imagination
Sofie Geschier on September 15, 2010:
Dear Robin, I read your page on the difference between sympathy and empathy with interest. I work with teachers on how to use personal stories in the classroom. I use the work of Dominick LaCapra, a historian (Writing History, Writing Trauma, 2001, pages 38-40). He says that sympathy has connotations with pity, condescension and patronising. Empathy in contrast is indeed a much deeper engagement. In addition, it is much more than identification. He talks about 'empathic unsettlement': you try to understand what it must be like to be that other person (which is a form of identification) but realise and acknowledge at the same time that you will never be able to fully understand what that other person is going through; there is respect for the other and his/her experiences.
K on September 14, 2010:
Thank you for your post. It was very helpful to have all of this information in one place. I think it would help to note that a person does not need to have shared the experience of another in order to have empathy, feel the others emotions or sense their state of mind. Having had a similar experience can help the empathic person to identify the feeling and possibly it's source but it is not a necessary factor for empathy.
WDBink on August 31, 2010:
well this article is excellent and the comments are pretty helpful too. Interesting about empathics or whatever it is. It reminds me of the diagnosis of Borderline Personality types as they respond to emotions of all kinds and sometimes intertwine it or fuse it into their behaviour without knowing it or being mindful about their reactions. I struggle with that, as well as, Aspergers.
But this article would also be a basis for a good module within a social skills program for people with Schizophrenia/Shizoaffective and autism or Aspergers.
Kyra on August 13, 2010:
P.S I know that my story strays away from the original topic but it gives a little insight into the life of empathic's wich may help you understand empathy all the more.
As for sympathy, its different.
Sympathy is relating with compassion for another's situation or suffering (wich empathic's feel deeply).
Empathy is feeling what another is feeling as if its their own....... At least it is for me!
Thank you, L.O.V.E, Peace & Light :)
Kyra Baker on August 12, 2010:
I am an "empath" (empathic) and it is more than just a dictionary term.
Its very real and many people "endure" it on a daily basis.
If i come across someone who is laughing & acting happy yet inside they are experiencing inner turmoil, i "FEEL" it on their level, i know its there, even if they deny it & go along their merry way.
I have cried, endured headaches, heartache, fear, pain, sorrow & all sorts of other emotions/feelings that i have "picked up"/"sensed" from other people.
You can not lie to am empath, they see people in their true light and it is actually classed as a psychic ability.. (wait for the scoffs & scorns)
Anyway, i am by no means an academic, im just stating facts from my life experience and like many other empath's, i never realised that i had this gift/curse until i found other's with the same ability who could shed light on all that i was enduring.
My saving grace :)
It's a way of reading/picking up on people that many empath's don't even realise they have.
Many empath's struggle with depression & anxiety because they can not differ between their feelings or those of other's if they are not aware that they are absorbing it from other's.
They think that they are having mood swings and all sorts of mental problems.
I went through it all, i even asked to be medicated for depression (witch ruined my life at the time) & anxiety (witch was a result of the anti-depressants) & i saw a psychologist & none of it helped & i have been told by professionals that i am not crazy, i was observed & sent home because i am sound, its just the emotions that overwhelm me 24/7 that take their toll.
Empath's can walk into a room and pick up on any emotions that are around and they will be emotionaly & for a lot of empath's even physicaly affected by it, if not aware of what is happening to them then negative environments can bring an empath to serious depression/anxiety and all sorts of negative experiences.
Empath's sense people behind the mask, the true emotional self of other people & they feel the other persons emotions/feelings/vibes & even their intentions.
Its so hard to put this into words, its an overwhelming thing but with the empath comes the ability to heal & that is the only upside.
I have left people with their jaw wide open because they can't figure out how i knew what i know, just reading them like a book, some people don't like that.
I can tell if my friends & family are sad/down/in trouble/in pain/hurting.. Even if they put on an act or try to hide it, i can feel it & its undeniable to me & i can often help them heal or see the good because of such insight into their experiences/feelings/moods/emotions.
I am extremely sensetive to everything & everyone & it makes for a very hard exhistance but also rewarding for all the positive ways that i can help people heal or offer them comfort.
Look this subject up & you will see what im talking about, all empath's vary but you will find the general view.
Thank you, L.O.V.E, peace & light :)
reyes on August 09, 2010:
thank u 4 making examples
it helps me a lot 4 my asignments
Kathy on August 08, 2010:
Situation: My friend just learned she has breast cancer.
Sympathy: I'm sorry to hear that you have cancer. I feel bad for your situation. How can I help you?
Empathy: I can totally relate. I so get what you are going through. I had breast cancer once, too.
Sebastian K on August 03, 2010:
You don't have to experience it to feel emphaty. If you got your baby in pain.. you will feel it, won't you.
In certain level of careness, awareness and love.. Emphaty will take more roles.
kim on July 05, 2010:
Michelle Vo: "the word 'sympathy' is common to the word 'similar'"
I assume that you mean that the word "sympathy" is similar to the word "similar?" I don't think that's played into anyone's confusion at all based on my own experience and the other comments I've read here.
But I agree with your basic definitions. I was curious what you meant about not agreeing with "some people's explanation of cognitive and emotional resonance" so I googled the word "resonance" and found this:
RESONANCE: rapport: a relationship of mutual understanding or trust and agreement between people
Seems to be in agreement with what you wrote..
Michelle Vo on June 13, 2010:
A good example of the differences between 'sympathy' and 'empathy' are the following sentences, in which it clearly highlights the contrast between the two words.
"I offer my sympathy at the lost of your loved one"
"I can empathize with how aggrieved you must be at the lost of your beloved"
So in my opinion, the main difference between these words is that 'sympathy' is the feeling of pity and sorrow for the pain and distress of somebody else.
While empathy is when you can understand what another person's feelings or difficulties are and in turn you feel for them, but not nesesarily share the same feelings of distress as they do. So basically...
Sympathy is when you feel sorry for someone or pitty them. And empathy is when you can relate to what they are going through and in turn feel for them.
Many people often mistaken that because the word 'sympathy' is common to the word 'similar', that to be sympathetic towards someone, you must have had a similar experience in the past. But this is not nessecarily true and i must add that i do disagree with some people's explanation of cognitive and emotional resonance.
kim on May 30, 2010:
sym- means with. em- means in.
sympathy- "With" implies alongside, next to, separate. It is someone who cries with you, feels bad for you, pities you. Maybe, codependently, takes on your pain as their own rather than remaining available to help you with the pain that is really yours. This may come from someone who has experienced something similar. Your pain of losing your mother must be the same as my pain of losing my mother. This is projection, not understanding. It's often not helpful. Sympathy can also be expressed in words spoken or, as stated above, in a store-bought card without having any real feeling of your own at all.
empathy- "In" implies immersion, actually feeling the others feelings without getting them wrapped up with your own, understanding experientially the other person in the moment. This does not imply having had the same experience--it is not about you, it is about the other. It is possible to have an emotional resonance, or understanding, of what another is feeling. This leads naturally to techniques that people can learn to make people feel they have been heard and understood(said well above). But true empathy involves an emotional resonance with the other person. This point is important, because an empath can respond to another's emotions even if the other is not consciously aware of those emotions. That is because the empath picks up on those emotions--feels them, senses them.
Sympathy is only given when the emotions of the other have been openly acknowledged (or assumed) as in the common example of offering sympathy to someone who is grieving.
Krista on May 21, 2010:
I agree with this commentor and a couple of others who've said the same thing:
"I disagree."I feel your pain" is Sympathy; "I understand your pain" is Empathy.
Sympathy is an emotional resonance,whereas Empathy is cognitive."
Empathy is simply trying to understand what someone else is going through. Empathy DOES NOT require having been through the same or similar experience at all. Empathy DOES require being able to listen to and congnitively comprehend what another person is feeling and needing and experiencing. Empathy DOES NOT require the listener to feel anything, in fact, empathy DOES require that the listener is able to put his or her feelings "on hold" temporarily so as to be able to fully understand someone else's experience, regardless of how the listener feels about it.
Many of the comments above illustrate and perpetuate the common misinterpretations of empathy. Empathy is NOT about the self, but 100% about the other person. If my son's favorite video game broke and he's feeling angry and disappointed because he just spent a lot of money on it and really liked it and had expected it to last longer, I can EMPATHIZE by simply listening to him express his feelings and attempting to understand why he is feeling that way. Active Empathy also involves repeating back to my son what he is experiencing so that he knows he is being HEARD and understood. "You sound really upset because you were enjoying that game so much and saved your money a long time for it, you hoped it would last longer....".
THAT is empathy.
As soon as I involve MY feelings and opinions "Oh, I am so sad for you, how awful, what a waste of money, that sucks.....", I have moved OUT of empathic listening and into sympathy and story-telling.
Receiving EMPATHY, to sum up in a sentence, is to experience being fully heard and understood by another person, regardless of how they feel, what they've gone through, or what they think.
Dan on May 02, 2010:
This may have been stated before, but I also disagree. Empathy is attempting to put yourself in someone else shoes. If your grandmother passed away, I will do my best to put myself in your shoes to understand what it is you are going through, whether or not I've had a grandmother pass away. Sympathizing in my opinion, is Empathy without trying to share the emotional connection or trying to actually put yourself in their shoes.
eric other on April 09, 2010:
I disagree with your analysis. As others before me have pointed out, sympathy is understanding through shared or similar experience, while empathy is attempted understanding without first-hand knowledge of an experience. An example of a sympathetic statement is, "I understand your pain. I recently lost my mother too." An empathetic statement would be, "I understand your pain. My sister recently lost her husband." The key difference between sympathy and empathy is first-person versus second-person experience.
possum on March 19, 2010:
Im studying nursing at the moment, and we have been told that as a nurse, you should have EM-pathy but not so much SYM-pathy. This is because with sympathy you get emotionally involved, you take on the clients pain and suffering and feel it yourself. Whereas with empathy you understand and feel what the client is going through but you can leave the feelings unattched to yourself and leave work at the end of the understanding that you still have your own feelings that are your not your clients. In effect you can leave your feelings for the client with the client because it will not help the client with you suffering with them and unable to think clearly because of it... Hope this helps...
Arctic Llama from Denver, CO on February 11, 2010:
The key to understanding the two terms is to realize that sympathy involves sadness or other negative. Empathy often does but does not have to. Or, to put it another way:
sympathy = offer comfort or condolences
empathy = walk a mile in your shoes
Zoe Ellis on November 18, 2009:
I am in a course for initial counselling and the difference we have been shown is that;
sympathy is patronising to a client. Just sitting their and saying 'I feel for you' is not the approach you need for a client.
Empathy is having a heart felt care for the person you are listening to while being separate from them as you do not want to get too close or too deep into how they are feeling, as it can get you down emotionally and you do not need to take these feelings away with you at the end of a session. An understanding and separation from a client is needed so that you can help them through their problem and pain. A being with them to understand how and why they feel as they do emotionally but separate physically.
There has been many different thoughts on this subject. I believe this hub has been written quite well. Showing the difference is not very easy to some other people hopefully reading this they will understand as it is set out even to laymens understanding.
Johnny Adrados on November 11, 2009:
I love how we exercise our analysis when it comes to grammar usage to avoid mishaps. sometimes what we need is not just to understand the differences but how to apply in realities.
bettiboop98 on October 28, 2009:
What is really interesting to me is that one can purchase a sympathy card; however, I have yet to find an empathy card in a store!
Ted K on September 12, 2009:
As a man can I feel empathy for a woman experiencig chilbirth labor pain?Or since I've never experienced labor, do I feel merely sympathy?
Finn Haverkamp on August 25, 2009:
Hey Hey! I get it finally. Thanks.
Yener on July 31, 2009:
There is not much to add, so I will make this an assertion of some thoughts mentioned above. I have to add, though, that it may or may not be right.
As a prospect teacher, we had a class on 'effective comminucation,' and spent literally months on empathy.
I think in this discussion, the etymological study would be misleading. We have to take into consideration that the use of words change over time.
Now, the difference;
Sympathy is, as was described many times above, is to feel other's emotions as your own, but you base this state of being on your own experiences. It does not have to be first hand experiences. You may have experienced it alongside a friend; so, when another friend is in the same or a similar situation, you have a base from which you can draw. A sympathetic person assumes that the one he/she is sympathesizes feels the same emotion in the same level as the previous experience.
Empathy is a more 'clinical' state. You cannot 'feel sorry' for someone, or share their thoughts. You are an outsider to the case, and what you are trying to do is to convey the feeling that you understand what the other is feeling. What might get confusing is that there are two types or components of Empathy; cognitive empathy and affective empathy. Affective empathy seems more likely to be confused with sympathy.
The cognitive component is about understanding what the other thinks whereas the affective component is all about the feelings of the other. I must stress the word 'other,' because that is the main difference as I will try to explain.
One other source of confusion is the term 'putting yourself into someone else's shoes.' I think that term's main cause is to emphasize that you are completely ignoring what YOU think about the situation; so, you cannot assume, you cannot judge.
I want to finish with an example;
Someone sees a poor man, dressed in rags, drinking;
Sympathetic: Poor thing (pressed judgement)! He must have been through so much (assumed)! I feel so sorry for him, so I must help him (assumed that the other is not happy)!
Empathetic: The one who is emphatetic would first understand what the poor man is thinking, feeling about this situation from the poor man's facial expressions, tone of voice, etc., because the poor man might not necessarily feel like what the sympathetic person thinks he feels like or how another poor man whom the sympathetic person knew has felt like.
I hope this helps.
Proustologue on June 08, 2009:
Quoted from another source:
"The two notions of sympathy and empathy are different. Empathy supposes a fusion of subject and object, while sympathy supposes a parallelism between them in which I am aware of the distinction between myself and the other. In sympathy I feel with; in empathy I feel in. Popular thought often does not respect the difference, using empathy where sympathy is meant."
To add my personal view, empathy, not a shallow word, resides at a much deeper emotional/psychological level than sympathy. I also think that the emotions are based on personal experience combined with one's imagination (psychological), and that one's imaginative ability corresponds directly to the depth of empathy felt. Not all are capable of true empathy.
Timothy Barton on April 18, 2009:
I know I'm being pedantic, but this is a semantics mishap rather than a grammar mishap.
duncan on April 11, 2009:
sympathy- "I wanna help."
empathy- "I wanna understand."
iMindMap on March 14, 2009:
No time to be sorry. Need to improve grammar.
Shrink on February 14, 2009:
I'm not sure that I agree that empathy is 'cognitive' in the usual sense. i agree that it is about understanding but true empathy requires an 'emotional understanding' or resonance. In modern usage I think that sympathy towards another is no longer about feeling in concert with the other - it has lost that sense of mutuality - and refers to an non-syntonic relationship where the sympathiser is in the less emotionally vulnerable, or dependent, position.
papajeaux on January 25, 2009:
good piece. but, i thought of a simpler way to put it: sympathy - wow, that must suck. empathy - that happened to me once; it sucks.
William on August 20, 2008:
A sympathizer becomes attached, emotionally invested or identified with the emotion or experience. Perhaps they are more inclined to act or react.
An empathizer can understand the feelings and emotions even experience them within. The empathizer recognizes that this is not actually himself and is not invested in the experience. Past similar experience and even the will to help can be present and there is a deeper understanding or detachment in a healthy sense.
William on August 20, 2008:
What if both viewpoints are right? After reading all this I would say that Sympathy is what you feel when you are caught up in another’s emotion. You identify with it to the degree that you can share the feelings of another’s viewpoint at that point. The past experience might even be there to. "I was so mad! This guy cut me off on my way to work today! I wanted to wring his neck!" The sympathizer might say, "Wow I hate that!" or "I hear ya, that would totally infuriate me to!"The empathizer to this example might perhaps see a bigger picture regardless of whether they had the same experience or not. "I empathize with you, and I can totally see why you would be angry" or "That happened to me once and I actually followed the guy I was so angry. When I caught up to him he was crying and pulling out his hair. I guessed something very painful had happened to him, and in his rush he was not paying attention." The earlier writer who mentions the “been there done that” comment, but "maybe not that harsh" makes sense to me. I see how empathy might sometimes be viewed as harsher than sympathy, by the person on the receiving end. The empathetic person may not be in the exact same state of emotion but still be fully and completely understanding.
The sympathetic person may want to help chase down the offending driver with the victim to help out in the ringing of the neck. The empathetic person may try to help the "victim" feel like less of a victim and to perhaps see a larger field. This may or may not sit well with the “victim” depending on delivery and the how receptive the person is to anything but sympathy.
ouidah from Austin on August 13, 2008:
Although I believe empathy is under-utilized, I learned that one of the dangers of empathy is that one can easily be sucked into the "pit of dispair" with the person who is feeling pain. So, when feeling empathy, one must also be metacognitive.
Marc De Cleene on August 08, 2008:
I think sympathy is feeling the 'pain' of the other, not being able of blocking it.
Empathy showing you understand the 'pain' and being able to block it. you don't suffer along.
John on July 09, 2008:
Thanks for that!
Charlene on July 01, 2008:
I am certainly late in coming into this discussion, however, I tonight I was reading a required textbook and in it it gave the definitions of empathy and sympathy. In the reading, I disagreed with the authors, they got it backwards, in my opinion. This is very frustrating as I have encountered many who seem to have the definitions backwards. So, here I am looking up the definitions and not happy with the results. Until this hub. At first I liked what I read. At last! Someone got it right. Then I read the comments and now understand better why there are so many who have it "backwards" as I see it.
a good friend of mine suffered greatly when her mother died. She was devastated. She and I cried and we were both wrecked. I felt FOR her, as devasted FOR her as I could be, but could only SYMPATHISE with her as my mother was alive. I felt sad and depressed and miserable FOR her.
Recently my own mother died. I was wrecked, devastated, I felt adrift and later, after much time had passed was able to fully understand what my friend had been through when her mother died. Now I was able to EMPATHISE as was she able to EMPATHISE with me when my mom died.
Therein lies the difference as I was taught.
Sympathy: to feel anothers pain without full understanding as you have not experienced their pain fully. "Oh, God I can only imagine the pain and grief you are feeling"
Empathy: to feel anothers pain fully as you can understand it through similar circumstances. Meaning "been there, done that" (not necessarily so coldly). "Oh, God! I'm so sorry for your loss! It's so awful to lose a parent".
Regardless, I am printing this page to bring to my instructor next week. Lets see what comes of it.
Jerry Arnold on April 25, 2008:
Empathy/Sympathy is a state of being wherein a person experiences to varying degrees the condition and position of another/s as though it was their own. This state or experience may consist of emotional and mental effects upon an individual and not necessarily be a virtue unless acted upon by the will. The distinction between E/S could be described by the state of willingness and readiness of the person to act or intervene in the condition and interest of another should necessity require and opportunity present itself. The qualitative differences between empathy and sympathy could be said to involve the distinction between a mental understanding through observation and the depth of comparison to one’s own experiences and resulting emotional impressions.
There may also be an element of involuntary emotional response vs. volitional involvement through exposure, i.e. mere superficial passing emotion vs. deliberate and willing reflection and consideration upon another’s conditions and the deliberate application of those observations to one’s own circumstances at the expense of one’s own complacency. The voluntary exchanging of one’s own emotional and mental state for another’s, which is decidedly worse in order to relate to the other person’s conditions more readily and the determination to experience them vicariously in so far as is possible as one’s own with the intent to modifying one’s own state thereby.
Carolyn Augustine from Iowa on April 18, 2008:
Thanks for an interesting hub. One of my all-time favorite sub-topics in the English language is usage. That's what you're discussing here, rather than grammar, which isn't one of my strong points! As a fascinating old curmudgeon of an English professor once pointed out, English usage is the realm of dictionary makers and high-school English teachers. Usage changes over time, too. Sometimes because words become outmoded (outworded? :) ) and often because people aren't aware of the finer nuances, like in symphathy/empathy.
I think we all have pet usage peeves. My "favorite" is affect/effect. Cheers!
John Murray on April 09, 2008:
Oops! Please forgive my spelling errors! I was trying to get my comments in before my next class starts and didn't proofread! Sorry.
John Murray on April 09, 2008:
This is interesting. Over the past couiple of days, I have been having a discussion with one of my students concerning the difference between the two words (we have been discussing empathetic listening from a Marketing perspective). And, as some have said, I see the difference as being cognitive versus emotionional (experiential). Cognitive referring to empathy and emotional referring to sympathy. In any case, it is easy to see how they can be confused with each other. I also find it interesting how there can be so much discussion about two simple words. I love this language!
Susan Keeping from Kitchener, Ontario on March 13, 2008:
Very well said. I've always seen empathy as the ability to put yourself in anothers place but not necessarily having experienced the same thing. Like someone above said, the world needs more sympathy and empathy right now.
zannr from Portland on February 14, 2008:
Nice. I think you covered this subject well.
Desmond on February 14, 2008:
I was in a debate in one of my Crisis Prevention classes around this exact topic. I, for one, disagree with your analysis Robin. Even in your definitions it explains how "sympathy" is an experience shared together. The latin definition is "suffering together". Empathy, in the definitions you discovered, states many times "understanding" and "vicariously experiencing". Latin defines this as suffering "with". We may not have experienced what an individual has been through but we are gaining an understanding toward their situation and therefore sharing their feelings. Therefore I disagree with your examples. Would not sympathy occur when the experience is shared? All of your shared experiences are categorized as empathic. In our work, dealing with emotionally disturbed people, we learn empathic listening and empathic approaches. This is an area of "understanding" and supporting. Not "sympathizing" with them and feeling that pain/hardship together.
fuguez on January 27, 2008:
I disagree."I feel your pain" is Sympathy; "I understand your pain" is Empathy.
Sympathy is an emotional resonance,whereas Empathy is cognitive.
charlie on January 14, 2008:
I agree with your usage of the two terms, mostly based on etymology. Sym-pathy is a feeling "with," whereas em-pathy is a feeling "in." So to feel within another's suffering implies a familiarity with the experience through something similar enough to form a mutual identification of the experience. For example, nothing irks the depressive more than hearing a sympathizer say, "I understand. I know what it feels like to experience a great disappointment. But I bounced back." Of course the depressive also knows great disappointment and bouncing back, and if that had been the content of the experience, s/he would say so. But to say, "I am going through a time of depression" describes a unique experience that ultimately can be known only to another person who has had that experience. Even sympathetic analysts and therapists armed with textbook definitions and knowledge cannot really "understand" depression from the interior.
However . . .! It seems that the medical community has reversed the meaning of the two words so that the literature usually indicates the sympathetic doctor is disabled by suffering with the patient, whereas the empathetic physician is the one who can understand what it is like to be in the condition of the sufferer, yet stand outside of it in order to address it objectively. They've switched around the definition/meaning of the terms, and I'm afraid that grammar mishap is going to prevail.
Skeptic on December 04, 2007:
I could very well be wrong, but I feel like you nailed the differences until the examples. You made it seem like empathy was coming from a shared feeling, which is sympathy. You made sympathy appear to be a percieved feeling (empathy) rather than a shared one. That contradiction may be difficult for some people to comprehend.
Chris on November 19, 2007:
There might be a bit of a mis-match in your examples and what is defined as Sympathy vs Empathy and my understanding of the two.
You say: "Empathy: I feel and understand your pain; my grandmother passed away last year as well."
Since you will never be able to walk in another person's shoes, your example of your grandmother is sympathetic (going back to your own pain of your grandmother dying). If you were to be empathetic, it could (although this is now giving advice, which is sympathetic) be written as: "I hear you're dealing with some pain from your loss".
Something to think about...
Brad on November 02, 2007:
The Emotional Causes A Blur Of The Two And Causes Uncertainty.
If one looks at the literal definitions the key componets are the diference in "Mental Understanding" and "Actual Alined Experience".
Empathy is the mental understanding => able to know where one is coming from without actual experience.
Sympaty is the actual alined experience => Similarly efected in experience, Beyond just understanding, as in Sypathetic Response.
T Lewis on August 02, 2007:
This discrepancy between the terms 'sympathy' and 'empathy' came up in my psychology class, too.
We determined that, with 'sympathy,' the quality of 'pity' and possibly a lack of base respect is also present. It is still a state of one person staying emotionally separate from someone else, possibly of one person (the sympathetic person) feeling pity for someone else where the sympathetic person values his or herself or his or her capabilities above the person that they pity.
With 'empathy,' there is a situation of one person attempting to feel 'the same as' and on the same level as someone else, sharing what the person feels. Pity is not a quality associated with the presence of someone feeling 'empathetic' toward another person. No 'more than' or 'better than,' no judgement about who has more or less capability, skill or any other human quality.
Typically, a sympathetic person may feel that they need to help the person they have sympathy for, as if that person is 'less than,' 'less capable' than the person who feels sympathetic toward someone else. A person feeling 'empathy' for someone else has a different motivation if they decide to help someone - that is - simply to help ease a burden and to assist someone, even if they are aware that the person may be capable of doing something on his or her own.
An empathetic person will want to assist regardless of the other person's ability.
Isabella Snow on July 26, 2007:
What an interesting hub! For me, sympathy means understanding and also believing a person is justified in their feelings. And for me empathy means sharing that same feeling due to common experience or summat. I like your examples, very good hub!
Cory Zacharia from Miami Beach, Florida on May 21, 2007:
Now I know how i feel :-) Thank you for this great explanation of a subtle but important difference.
simco on May 16, 2007:
at last I understand the difference,it used to drive me mad !!!!!!!
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 08, 2007:
Thanks, Counterpunch. I always enjoy your hubs!
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 08, 2007:
Thanks, Marti! Welcome to HubPages!
thecounterpunch on May 08, 2007:
Funny I thought I was already in your fan club but no so I join now :)
Marti from Grain Valley on May 08, 2007:
Great explanation - thanks for sharing!
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 07, 2007:
Thanks, StuartJ. I like your definition and appreciate the comment. ;)
StuartJ from Christchurch, New Zealand on May 06, 2007:
Congrats on the 100th.
I like the Britannica definition of 'empathy'. I've always thought of empathy as the ability to understand what it's like to be in someone else's shoes and see and feel things the way they do. I can see empathy existing without there being any sympathy for someone. Sympathy, to me, suggests being sorry for someone's plight rather than necessarily understanding it fully.
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 06, 2007:
Thanks, Jack...and I agree, Greg. ;)
Greg Hardwick from Queensland, Australia on May 05, 2007:
Sympathy and empathy are two things the world needs more of. Keep up the good work.
jstankevicz from Cave Creek on May 05, 2007:
Excellent analysis Robin. Your examples were spot on and clear. Regards Jack
Robin Edmondson (author) from San Francisco on May 04, 2007:
Thanks, Jimmy. I'm nowhere near your number of hubs, but working on it. ;)
Jimmy the jock from Scotland on May 04, 2007:
congratulations on hub 100 Robin looking forward to the next 100.....jimmy