Difference Between Similar Terms and Objects

Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

dictionary1Sympathy vs Empathy
Sympathy and Empathy are two of the most common misunderstood terms in the English language. There are hundreds of people that do not understand the difference between these two terms. They are actually two separate terms that have some important distinctions that everyone should know.

It is fair to state that both sympathy and empathy are acts of feelings. With sympathy though, you feel for the person. You pity or feel sorry for them but you do not necessarily understand what they are actually feeling. As a result of this you tend to have no choice but feel sympathetic for the person because you do not understand the problem or predicament that they are presently having. Empathy on the other hand takes a little more imagination, work, or even similar situations to gain empathy for someone. It is most often referred to as higher order in the overall complexity of the human emotions.

You can describe empathy as sharing a feeling with someone. So do you notice the difference between the two so far? With empathy to an extent you are placing yourself in the persons place, you have a good sense of how they feel, and you also understand their feelings to some degree. Sometimes it may seem impossible for someone to feel empathetic to a person’s feelings because of their reactions. These reactions involve their thoughts and feelings towards the issue are going to be unique to each and every individual. The idea of empathy though implies a much more active process than sympathy does.

It is hard for you to empathetic to a person’s feelings but it can be easy for you to feel sympathy. It is easy for you to feel sympathy for someone who has lost a loved one, has undergone some certain kind of trauma, or have faced some very difficult times.

When sympathy is expressed to a person that is experiencing grief suggests to you that that person is alone in their grief. Empathy on the other hand suggests to the person that you are right by their side through the whole issue that they are dealing with, at the moment. You have the ability to imagine how it is to be in their shoes, and you are with them during their time of stress and turmoil.

The difference between sympathy and empathy is often misunderstood but when you understand the differences you will be able to use the terms in a better manner.

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  1. Empathy and sympathy are probably terms that need to be defined before they are used because people mean different things by them.

    I have always assumed the following meanings:

    Empathy = being able to understand what someone else is thinking / feeling. The components of the word mean “feeling into”.

    Sympathy = agreeing with what someone else is thinking / feeling or feeling with with them as the components of the word are “pathy” – feeling and “sym” – with.

    Therefore I have always preferred sympathy over empathy. An enemy will work hard to gain empathy, but it is a friend who has sympathy by both understanding what I am feeling and then supporting me in that.

    I have never understood sympathy as merely feeling sorry for someone, but it seems that many people do understand the word in this way which is why they say they prefer empathy to sympathy.

  2. I think it should be borne in mind that ‘empathy’ is a relatively modern word that came into use in the 20th century. It doesn’t even appear in the original (1930) full Oxford English Dictionary – I’ve just looked. As a Brit, I was completely unfamiliar with it until I started blogging, and saw its widespread use in the US.

    According to The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1998 revision) it was introduced to English as a Greek-formed translation of the German Einfühlung at the beginning of the 20th century, as “a term used in psychology meaning ‘the power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the subject of contemplation’ (OED).”

    My Chambers Dictionary (1988) includes these almost identical definitions:

    empathy – the power of entering into another’s personality and imaginatively experiencing his experiences

    sympathy – power of entering into another’s feelings or mind: harmonious understanding

    Sympathy is clearly the older word, and has acquired several other meanings along the way, including, most obviously, ‘compassion, pity’ as well as some more specialised ones. I imagine that ‘empathy’ was coined by psychologists to draw a distinction they felt necessary in their work, but it should be borne in mind that it has a more limited meaning than ‘sympathy’.

    Strictly speaking, you should only use the word ‘empathy’ when you mean you have the capacity to understand someone’s feelings, but nothing more: if you want to imply you also feel sorry for them, then ‘sympathise’ is the word to use.

  3. I am a studient of Physicology. I am to write a paper on the difference between sympathy and empathy. You have helped me tremindously.

  4. Years ago as a student I was taught a relatively simple way of determining which term was applicable in a given situation – sympathy or empathy.

    Sympathy is used to describe the feelings for another being who is experiencing distress.

    Empathy is used to describe the feelings for another being who is experiencing distress similar to distress which you have experienced in some way yourself.

    For example, if a friend’s parent dies, you feel sympathy for your friend, but you may have no similar experience of your own. But if a friend’s mother dies and the experience brings back your own sad feelings from when your own mother died, you are feeling empathy.

    Perhaps the way I was taught to distinguish between the two words is an oversimplification, but it has seemed to serve me well through the years.

    • This is the way I see the difference between empathy and sympathy. It is difficult to distinguish the difference when one never really ever has a need to discuss the differences, but it is a very interesting thing to search out.

    • Yep, that’s exactly how I distinguish them too. The way they distinguish them are a little different.

  5. I am also trying to figure out the distinction between empathy and sympathy. I have looked at a couple of the online dictionaries, but the definitions that were provided were obnoxiously unsatisfactory. I have read each persons attempt of such definitions, and I have found the various posts to be very helpful. I appreciate that there are people who are willing to try to make such distinctions, even if such distinctions are hard to determine.

    Also, I think it needs to be said that what Tim has posted is unacceptable. I actually do not agree with the definition Kevin Alard has provided. However ,it has absolutely helped with progressing in the right direction towards answering the question. If someone is to have knowledge of their own ignorance towards something, but at the same time, have a belief that they are able to determine that which is not that something, then by definition, they are actually ignorant to the knowledge of their ignorance.

    So in conclusion, Tim really should keep quite because he doesn’t realize when he wrong.


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