The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

Album Cover: The Future

"The maestro says it's Mozart, but it sounds like bubble gum."
Leonard Cohen / Waiting For The Miracle

Posted on August 19, 2005 7:40 PM in Blathery
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

I've been meaning to look up the difference between sympathy and empathy for a while now, but apparently there isn't one. Answers.com lists empathy as a synonym for sympathy and vice versa.

If you ask Google, you'll most likely come across a site that contradicts itself when trying to point out the difference:

Empathy is entering into another's feelings. Sympathy is having a feeling together with someone.

...

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone else. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone else.

Pay attention to the word "with" in those attempted explanations and you'll see the contradiction.

After finally looking into the matter, I've come to the conclusion that there really isn't any difference. That's a good thing, though – less work for my brain to do when coming up with the right words to say.

If you have your own idea of the difference between the two words, I'd love to hear.

Comments

Phil Bradley on August 25, 2005 at 9:40 AM:

Sympathy is understanding someone is upset and appreciating that fact that they are upset. Empathy is knowing why they are upset. It's a similar concept, just further along the scale.

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Freddy on September 15, 2005 at 10:31 AM:

When you feel sympathy for someone you feel sorry for their pain. When you feel empathy you are feeling the pain too.

That's why the use the word "with" in the differences you found. In the first case you dont feel the pain. You are just sorry they are feeling it.

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Paul Storms on October 07, 2005 at 2:27 PM:

Sympathy = Acknowledgement of another's painful feelings.

Empathy = Mutual feelings of pain between people.

-Plain and simple.

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Marlene on October 11, 2005 at 1:20 PM:

Empathy can only be felt when you have experienced the same as the person you are emphathizing with....an example...if a parent loses a child but you have not...you can only sympathize with that person...if you have lost a child too you can then emphathize with that person.

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Bernie Zimmermann on October 12, 2005 at 8:44 AM:

I really like that explanation, Marlene.

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scott on May 29, 2006 at 5:41 PM:

From a sales standpoint I was always led to believe that:

When you provide sympathy you are relating to that persons pain and allowing your feelings to cloud your judgement which doesnt allow you to make the sale because you ultimately decide not to ask for it.

When you have empathy you are still feeling their pain but not allowing it to change how you communicate with that person and keeps you on your course and finish your job and ulimately still ask for the sale.

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michael on July 11, 2006 at 6:17 PM:

my understanding of sympathy and empathy don't match any of these submitted definitions.

sympathy is related to feeling. (emotion)

empathy is related to understanding. (knowledge, experience)

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Shaun Maslin on October 06, 2006 at 2:25 AM:

Hiya, stumbled across this site. At my basic counselling course we discussed the difference and if i can attempt to explain my understanding:

Empathy is understanding anothers feelings from their viewpoint, from their background of experiences and feeling.

Sympathy is more putting yourself in anothers 'shoes' and experiencing how you would feel if you was in their position.

ie how would you feel with your background and life experiences that made you the person you are, versus how you imagine they must feel with their life experiences and background.

Also look at the definitions on dictionary.com

Hope this helps ;-)
Shaun

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Brittani on November 21, 2006 at 8:57 AM:

Sympahthy is: an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other (the key word here beign similarly, meaning you've never experienced it so you can't know how they are feeling your just assuming)

Empathy is: 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; also : the capacity for this

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Pumper on November 24, 2006 at 7:19 AM:

Lost interest in Firefox themes oboyo?
Forget the girlie dinner making and get back on the theme wagon Lupo!
Woman make dinner and NOT men. Like women bend over to get shafted and NOT men (well gay exceptions not counted as pleasurable as it may be the feeling of being completely filled to the rim). Gotta try that one day.
Oi! I meant cooking dinner and NOT about getting filled to the rim balls deep!!!
Get cracking and make some more themes Lutz! That is an ORDER!
Oh ok... please make some more themes my friend, we love them and we really would like to see some updated ones please, pretty please, cherry on top. I will even bend over to get planted to the hilt, please. Boohoo.

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John on November 24, 2006 at 7:24 AM:

You got some issues maybe even split personalities. I empathize with you badly.

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Christine on December 07, 2006 at 9:42 AM:

As both words contain the Greek root "path," they both deal with "feelings."

I remember really "getting" the difference first time I encountered the character of Diana Troy on one of the Star Trek series many years ago. She was an empath, so her special "power" was that she could sense others' emotions, fears, etc. The downside of this was that she actually felt them along with the person. Funny the places that learning occurs!

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joe on January 15, 2007 at 6:11 PM:

I always thought empathy was "feeling sorry for someone" and sympathy meant "...and knowing how they feel because you've been there too". but maybe I got em backwards. I came across this site googling the difference...

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Heather on March 27, 2007 at 11:59 AM:

empathy is felt when you feel for someone who had gone through something that you have experienced yourself. symapthy is feeling bad for someone because you imagine what they are going through is difficult, but you don't know exactly because you never experienced it.

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Ged on April 02, 2007 at 5:46 AM:

Im thinkin empathy is the acknowledgement of another's feelings.
"So your feeling frustrated because you have a real need for communication that is not being met"

Whereas sympathy is to cast judgement upon the other person's feelings that they are negative in some way.
"Damn that sucks that your wife is having an affair with the pool-guy and his eight hairy brothers."

For how often do we hear someone having sympathy for a happy person? I don't hear that, and it doesnt sound right to me hearing it.

I dont think one shares the person's feelings in either case, however, when placing a negative judgement on the feelings of someone you are connecting with, often you will have your own negative feelings arise.

So it can be said that sympathy will often stimulate similar feelings within you.

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kei on April 19, 2007 at 10:01 AM:

from an article ive read..

sympathy: i can imagine your pain.

empathy: i feel your pain.

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david on April 23, 2007 at 12:07 AM:

the key here is that sympathy comes from the greek words for "same" and "feeling". It's that you have the same feeling because you are able to relate, have experienced something similar, etc. It's about sharing the feeling the other person has

empathy, means "in" and "feeling", that is, you can see that they are feeling something, you understand the feeling.

sympathy is like "I feel your pain, my mom abandoned me too." and empathy is like "You are upset because your mother abandoned you."

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Amy on June 30, 2007 at 7:17 PM:

The way I use or understand these two words is more along the lines of strength and weakness. When I hear the word "sympathy" I automatically think of things that fall into the category of pity or compassion and for some reason, those words lean more toward weakness.

Empathy on the other hand is more along the lines of understanding... or having been in a similar situation in which you actually, physically or emotionally FELT the same things and therefore can serve as a better means of support for someone. And if you are supporting someone, you've made it through the hard times and learned from them... and are a better source of advice than someone who just has sympathy.

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English Major on August 01, 2007 at 9:39 AM:

It is funny how some people are offering answers that are backwards!! Those who have explained that sympathy is "imagining someone's pain" and empathy is "feeling someone's pain" are the absolutely correct ones. In both cases, you are relating to someone else, but those words are NOT synonyms! Sympathy is a much more common feeling because we are not as likely to have experienced the same difficult situation as someone else. For instance (thank God and knock on wood), I have never gone through chemotherapy, sent a loved one to war, etc., but I definitely feel sympathy for those who have. That's why "sympathy cards" exist and not "empathy cards".

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Travis Stewart on August 01, 2007 at 1:35 PM:

Empathy cards? Could be fun to make a few. promoting global responsibility and awareness, with the desire to propel compassion.

Sympathy is an emotional affinity in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other. I have under gone 10 Brain surgeys in the past year and the essence of sympathy is that a person's feelings reflect or are like those of another or that a person suffers as a response to, or because of, another person's suffering. Don`t be confused with empathy
(literally the recognition but not sharing of others' suffering) nor with pity.

Sympathy exists when the feelings or emotions of one person give rise to similar feelings in another person, Or when they stopped drawing Bambi when every one cried.
In common usage, sympathy is usually the sharing of unhappiness suffering

There is also Political sympathy, In a broader sense, it can refer to the sharing of political or ideological sentiments, such as in the phrase "a communist sympathiser".
.

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jamie on August 01, 2007 at 2:50 PM:

Taz, did you get your definitions off of m-w.com? I concur with your definitions. Sympathy: you know how the person feels because you've felt it yourself; Empathy: you can imagine how someone else feels (if you're a compassionate, caring person and not an ass hat). Unfortunately, I have no Hallmark verses for empathy. I'm not quite that creative. Or maybe I choose to express my creativity in different ways (working on decreasing my instances of self-deprication!).

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Bernie Zimmermann on August 01, 2007 at 11:54 PM:

It's a shame we can't ask Oswald Bates to sort this out for us.

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Yno on December 09, 2007 at 9:56 PM:

After reading different meanings of empathy and sympathy.. here's my own understanding about the difference for that.

Sympathy- is how you understand the bad experience of someone....and

empathy- is how you feel the bad experience of someone because you already been there before in the same situation.

I think simple as that.
thank you

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Tess on December 19, 2007 at 2:22 PM:

The prefix "sym" means "with" and thus sympathy means "feeling with" and has roots in Greek and Latin. Empathy, on the other hand, finds its roots in early 20th century psychology, and can be translated as "feeling into." Sympathy involves an awareness and participation in the suffering of another and arises when one shares an experience with someone else. The object of sympathy is another's well-being.
Empathy, in contrast, involves an ability to comprehend another's state without directly experiencing that state and involves seeing the world from the perspective of another. The object of empathy is understanding.

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migsmmigs on January 02, 2008 at 12:05 PM:

Well thats an array of responses. For me... To empathize is like pouring ink into water ...you become the same substance...sympathy is like pouring milk into orange juice''makes it curdle

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Goldie Thakore on March 12, 2008 at 10:14 PM:

Well what i believe about sympathy and empathy is:-

Sympathy is when you give a handkerchief to the some one who is crying & Empathy means crying with the person who is crying.

That what i feel

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litzi on May 08, 2008 at 5:55 AM:

I'm a currently studying counselling and even though there is a thin line between them both as they are pretty much the same but there is a difference.
Sympathy: Is when you feel the pain from the other person and you feel it in yourself.
Emapthy: Is when you feel the pain together yet you have no need to feel emotional or be upset because you sharieing someone else's pain.

It is difficult to explain them both but there IS a difference between them.

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D.Johansson on May 25, 2008 at 12:28 PM:

Haha I enjoyed variety of responses, especially Goldie Thakore's conclusion of "that is what I feel". English should be black and white, like math, then there'd be no need for this debate.

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Berkeley on July 14, 2008 at 5:25 PM:

I think when one feels sympathy to the extent of a deep emotional involvement with the person who's suffering, one can say he he has feelings of empathy. But is anyone truly an empath? I think we use the word empathy rather loosely in many contexts. Part of the degradation of the language, like "legend" "idol" etc.

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queenb on August 17, 2008 at 5:52 PM:

I really agree with litzi's definition. Being in the social service field we are constantly instructed to be empathetic and not sympathetic with our clients. My understanding is that sympathetic would literally mean we are sulking with them as opposed to acknowledging their feelings and helping them through it, which I view as being empathetic. There is no need for us to be emotional or upset because we are only sharing in their pain (empathizing) verses feeling their pain (sympathizing). As soon as we begin to feel their pain (sympathize) our job becomes very difficult to do. I must admit the words are very tricky.

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Melissa on August 22, 2008 at 10:42 AM:

There is actually a major difference between empathy and sympathy. So much of a difference, that you could write a paper about it. A lot of times empathy is mistaken for sympathy and it creates an argument. Some people think just cuz you don't show "sympathy" for someone, you don't care at all which is not true. If you think about it, showing pity for someone isnt gonna help them any. Having the ability to imagine yourself in someone else's shoes helps them more. They will feel more connected to you if you can sense what they are feeling. Empathy and sympathy are similiar in some ways but they have major differences as well.

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JJ on September 13, 2008 at 1:52 AM:

I googled and found this site, because I wasn't sure which was which in terms of matching word to meaning. After reading all the different responses, I now agree with my high school English teacher's explanation (which I was unsure of until now).

She told me that people - not to mention greeting cards - use the term sympathy incorrectly. According to her, sympathy means you've experienced what the person you're using the word toward has experienced. Empathy, on the other hand, is where you can imagine it, but haven't experienced it first hand. So when a greeting card says "with sympathy", or someone says, "I sympathize with you losing your father," it eludes that the person has gone through the same sort of loss that the recipient is going through, which may not be the case. She said that it should say "with empathy."

Now that I think about it, I can understand why greeting card companies wouldn't want to differentiate, because imagine how many more variations of cards they'd have to make over a technicality. And, why would the majority of people want to be so technical. It would be like saying, "I can't sympathize with you because I never lost my father, but I recognize that you're going through pain and am empathetic." It's easier to just say "I'm sympathetic to your loss."

Summary:

Sympathy: I've been through what you're going through.
Empathy: I can imagine what you're going though, but have never experienced it.

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Sam on September 25, 2008 at 12:28 AM:

very good topic to be discussed and I got the answer.. thanks for that!!!

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Barbara on October 14, 2008 at 2:50 PM:

On October 11, 2005, the explanation given by Marlene was posted and is the same one my mother (a school teacher for over 30 years) gave me well over 50 years ago. "Empathy can only be felt when you have experienced the same as the person you are emphathizing with....an example...if a parent loses a child but you have not...you can only sympathize with that person...if you have lost a child too you can then emphathize with that person." Almost word for word as my mother's definitions of sympathy and empathy.

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queenb9 on November 10, 2008 at 10:20 AM:

Thank you for all of the comments. It gave me a better understanding of the words with each explaination. I remember learning the difference in elementary school. But you know what they say: If you don't use it, you loose it!

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rachel on November 14, 2008 at 2:01 PM:

I'm an artist and designer currently working with empathy, and I agree empathy is in-feeling, even if the person empathizing hasn't experienced the situation, whereas sympathy is more of a similar array of experiences which enables you to feel the pain, and in a way relive it through your experience. But, last week a colleague told me that in Brazil, her home country, there is a saying that states that if you're stuck in a hole, a sympathetic person will get into the hole with you, and the empathic person will give you a rope so you can get out of the hole. So I got really confused and now I've been doing some research to find what's the difference between both, and found this website. It has left me still confused, but nonetheless it has inspired me to see such vast display of opinions in this debate!

Even so, I also found this reference, and thought I could share it as well:
Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy- intellectual & emotional awareness and understanding of another person's thoughts, feelings, and behavior even that are distressing

emphasizes understanding
Sympathy- sharing another's feelings especially in sorrow or trouble through imaginative identification with the other's situation

emphasizes sharing of another persons feelings and experiences

(source: http://faculty.mc3.edu/rbenfiel/NUR109/NUR109Caring/tsld014.htm)

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Danly on November 25, 2008 at 6:17 PM:

Marlene up there provides the best example. Thanks!

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BJ on March 01, 2009 at 6:03 AM:

Wow, very helpful although many completely contradict each other!

In the end, a word means what it means in current usage and that is much more important than its etymology or history. Based on that, it is almost always "sympathy" that is seen as inferior - almost a synonym to "pity". Empathy is often seen as an ideal. So with that here is my attempt:

Sympathy
-understanding or recognition of another’s situation
-objective, rational, pity
-self-focused, how am I feeling about your experience e.g. “I feel bad for you? or “Me too? responses

Empathy
-sharing another persons feelings and experiences
-subjective, imaginative identification
-“putting oneself in another's shoes.?
-other-focused, trying to imaginatively feel and experience another’s situation e.g. “I feel bad with you?

Sympathy cards exist for the simple fact that people are pretty-much self-focused...

BJ

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Reggie Miller on March 13, 2009 at 8:06 PM:

Sympathy is a mere submission of feelings
to someone who is upset.
Making that person feel that you are sorry
for his/her pain. A person can sympathize with someone
by not saying anything or by simply tapping his shoulder.

Empathy for me is more deeper. It is a precise feeling
of involvement to the situation not only knowing what & why that person is upset, but by doing something to lessen the pain.

Neither empathy nor sympathy doesn't
require us to experience every single situation in which
a person felt upset with, in order for us to differenciate
sympathy and empathy. As for me, it is a matter of determining the intensity of situation, and knowing your relationship with the person involved. . .Sympathy and empathy is not a choice, it's more of an emotional reaction. we can not say this is what i will give to that person, not until we reacted upon certain
situation, that's the only time we might say it was
"Sympathy or Empathy" we have felt.

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DDanda on March 18, 2009 at 2:33 AM:

Haha, this very same question that brought most of you here also got me here, and I patiently read all of your answers. I will now give my own opinion.

I think most of you are right but neglected the fact that there is a vast difference between the two, depending what purpose the word is being used. In a way, it's true that they contradict one another.

As stated above, the given definitions are:

Empathy is entering into another's feelings. Sympathy is having a feeling together with someone.

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone else. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone else.

Both of these, I think, are actually right. The former definitions between the two are used in general terms, while the latter are used in a gloom state, i.e., loss, depression, etc. According to Dictionary.com, the two are defined as the following:

Empathy - the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Sympathy - harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another. (sharing the feelings of another)

The above definitions are used in general terms except on a gloom state of another person. In a gloom state, the following definitions are proper:

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone else. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone else.

In this case, the word sympathy is proper to say to another if you haven't experienced what they went through, i.e., loosing a baby, etc.

One of the Commenters mentioned a scenario in Brazil, where a person who gives a rope to another that's in a hole is an empathyzer, while a man who joins another that's in a hole is a sympathyzer. Again, these definitions are right in all occations, except in a gloom state such as deppression, a loss, etc.

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Roc on March 20, 2009 at 7:46 AM:

The general idea of empathy versus sympathy is this

Sympathy- You've informed me of how you feel, and i agree that is how you should feel.

"I am pissed because i failed the test"
"You have my sympathy, because that sucks."

The person who is giving sympathy is doing so because they agree the person should feel bad.

Empathy however, is the concept of understanding why they feel the way they do.
Usually empathy is felt when you have expierenced the same thing they have.
BUT, you can still empathize with someone if you have not expierenced it, as long as you can wrap your head around how they are feeling.

The big confusion people are having is that in a literal sense, sympathy means you feel bad for the person, so you are sharing their emotion.
Empathy means you understand why they feel the way they do.

If you are open minded enough, you could empathize with someone even if you disagree with why they feel that way.

Hope this helps guys.

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DDanda on March 20, 2009 at 11:48 AM:

Haha, this very same question that brought most of you here also got me here, and I patiently read all of your answers. I will now give my own opinion.

I think most of you are right but neglected the fact that there is a vast difference between the two, depending what purpose the word is being used. In a way, it's true that they contradict one another.

As stated above, the given definitions are:

Empathy is entering into another's feelings. Sympathy is having a feeling together with someone.

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone else. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone else.

Both of these, I think, are actually right. The former definitions between the two are used in general terms, while the latter are used in a gloom state, i.e., loss, depression, etc. According to Dictionary.com, the two are defined as the following:

Empathy - the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

Sympathy - harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another. (sharing the feelings of another)

The above definitions are used in general terms except on a gloom state of another person. In a gloom state, the following definitions are proper:

Sympathy is when you feel bad for someone else. Empathy is when you feel bad with someone else.

In this case, the word sympathy is proper to say to another if you haven't experienced what they went through, i.e., loosing a baby, etc.

One of the Commenters mentioned a scenario in Brazil, where a person who gives a rope to another that's in a hole is an empathyzer, while a man who joins another that's in a hole is a sympathyzer. Again, these definitions are right in all occations, except in a gloom state such as deppression, a loss, etc.

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Ross on April 07, 2009 at 7:55 PM:

It's always amazing to see how many people are thinking and looking up the same thing... this was one of the first sites that came up after googling the difference between these words.

And again, like many of you, after patiently reading everyone's own personal opinions, I feel like it's still not totally clear, just because there are so many contradictory statements within this thread.

Here's my take (without doing another lame copy and paste job from some other website, which really doesn't help anyone..)

First off, there is the etymology to consider, but like most things in life, nothing stays the same forever.. Even though in Greek/Latin, these words mean the following:

sym-path=feeling with
&
em-path=feeling in,

I feel like the definition has become the reverse in today's society. People who sympahize only try to understand what someone is going through, but they don't truly grasp the full emotional toll being experienced. Whereas to empathize with someone, you understand completely to the core, and even if you throw that person a rope to escape that Brazilian hole, you also spend some time in that hole with them before you get the both of you out (and for me, the sympathizer is just feeling bad for the person in the hole but is just standing at the top with no rope or other means of support, other than a few tissues to toss down for the one crying and stuck).

All that to say, Marlene, I agree with your short and simple explanation! It's at the top of this bunch and seems the strongest even at the end of it!

Also, it is interesting to note the fact that these words really do only come up in times of sadness and overall negativity.. When people are getting married, tears of joy often follow by the guests (friends and family) because they are so happy for the couple getting married. But is that from their own emotional reaction, or are they just empathizing with the "happy couple"? Then again, when someone wins the lottery, most people aren't really happy for them, but that goes into a whole another topic... Good debate people!!

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Lily on May 09, 2009 at 9:22 AM:

Sympathy expressed to a person in grief suggests that person is alone in their grief. Empathy suggests youre in it with them, you can imagine what it is to be in their shoes, and you are together with them in emotional turmoil and loss.

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ScottC on May 29, 2009 at 9:34 AM:

I think the differences are clear to me, but I must point out something I find interesting. I always cringe when I hear someone say "THE definition." I think people should always say "A definition." Although there may be several people (and I'm one of them) who agree that empathy is different than sympathy because emaphy implies a past , personal experience, it's obvious from this board that other people have a different understanding. Words are just a way to communicate the thoughts that we have. It's a person's meaning that they try to concieve when speaking or writing, thus we cannot never say that they are using incorrect words, only that we have a different understanding of those words . Very interesting...I'm glad I came accross this today and I will be more mindful of the meanings people are using.

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bogue on June 07, 2009 at 4:12 PM:

As I've had it explained to me in journalism school, sympathy occurs when you can relate directly to a persons misfortune via similar experience/tragedy. Empathy occurs when you have an understanding of someone's misfortune but can't fully grasp the entirety of it, due to a lack of similar experience, as much as no one living will be able to have sympathy for someone who has been brutally murdered for example.

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Matt on June 15, 2009 at 11:22 AM:

Clarification through usage:

A prosecutor must empathize with a murderer in order to establish motive, but certainly needn't sympathize with him.

We might call a person incapable of sympathy a "hardliner," while a person incapable of empathy we might call a "sociopath."

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Matt on June 24, 2009 at 8:17 AM:

Unfortunately the confusion in distinction lies from the latin roots. In Sympathy: 'same - feeling' it is been interperetted two different ways. Two people must have had the same experiential occurence to sympathize with each other, or two people feel the same way as a result of a situation.

These two different interpretations of the debated meaning of sympathy are compounded by the vagueness of the root for empathy: 'in-feeling.' Does this mean to have the capabilities to put oneself in the place of another and understand their feelings from their viewpoint (without actual experience?) Or does it mean that an empathizer has been in the same position and the feelings are developed from that commonality?

The arguments are pretty even both ways, and I think this blog's going to go on forever.

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Isaac Koh on July 13, 2009 at 7:13 PM:

In my opinion. Sympathy is commonly associated with bad feelings, mishaps and tragedies.

On the other hand empathy can be associated with the good and bad feelings as well. You empathize with a person who is happy. Why he is happy and you engage him accordingly.

However, sympathy is passive and the only action required for the sympathizer is to feel for and with the person.

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qwerty on July 23, 2009 at 1:13 AM:

With so many answers I got confused by what those words really means. Anywho, I am doing UMAT and empathy is a big topic in it. So from what I see empathy is putting urself into another person's shoes and understanding thier feelings (not feeling them, just identifying them). Yet sympathy is literally suffering their emotions, i.e. feeling with them.

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germain on August 02, 2009 at 7:45 PM:

Sympathy is an emotional response in which ones emotional state resonates in harmony with another or others. While sympathy is most often used to describe shared negative emotions such as sorry or sadness, it may properly be used for shared positive emotions as well. A person who is unsympathetic would be described as aloof, distant or uncaring.

Empathy is a mental state in which one is able to view matters through another persons perspective. As some have stated, it's the ability to walk in another person's shoes. The opposite of an empathetic person is one who is totally self-absorbed.

From this perspective, empathy is the basis of true morality. Those with a well developed sense of empathy are more clearly able to evaluate the impact of their behaviors on others and adjust their behavior accordingly. They have an internal compass to guide them.

Those with a less developed sense of empathy have to rely more on an external code of behavior. Whether its the parent, the law or religious code that provides behavioral structure, the promise of punishment, if one strays, is the primary means of assuring compliance.

Someone totally lacking empathy is a psychopath. Their world view is through total self-absorption. Their behavior is guided by what brings them pleasure or reduces pain regardless of the impact those behaviors have on others.

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ema on August 08, 2009 at 4:02 AM:

both are as smexy

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Ur Mum on August 13, 2009 at 4:51 PM:

This helped me alot,,, but why so many comments?? ha ha... its not like somone is going to read all of em :P

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Mommi Jee on November 02, 2009 at 12:42 AM:

From what I understand, "empathy" is sharing the feelings of a person; being in the pain with them or understanding what they're going through. Whereas, having "sympathy" for someone is just pitying them or in other words feeling sorry for them.

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reshmi rajesh on November 16, 2009 at 5:00 AM:

Very intersting posts.... will add this blog to my favorites... thanx a ton.....

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Carrie on January 14, 2010 at 5:51 AM:

Old thread, but I do see recent posts, so throwing in my two cents. Yes, BOTH are emotions. While Marlene's take was poetic and nice, I find it to be not quite factual. You do not NECESSARILY need to have experienced the exact same feeling/emotion/situation as another to truly be empathetic with them. You do NOT. Some are blessed with being in tune enough with their own emotions and life experiences, to be able to EQUATE that, and truly be able to KNOW how that feels. I think Kei's example is best:

sympathy: i can imagine your pain.

empathy: i feel your pain.

an example from my life. Once , late at night, my boys and I pulled up to go through a Taco Bell drive-through. Out of the corner of my eye, in the back alley, I caught a movement near the trashcan. On second look, I could plainly discern it was a man rising up, pulling his upper torso out of the bottom of the trashcan which he had thust himself into. Our eyes met, and in that second, I KNEW EXACTLY how he was feeling. Exactly. I saw it in his eyes, as plain as anything I have seen before. I KNEW HOW HE FELT at that exact moment. How? Have I ever been forced , let alone "caught" having to dig in a trashcan for my next meal? NO, I have not. But I did not have to.
I HAD in my life however, FELT AND EXPERIENCED all I saw in his eyes that night.
SHAME this what my situation had brought me to.
ANGER others were judging me.
FEAR of Uncertainty and rejection
HOPELESSNESS that I would not find a way to get out of a situation.
LONELINESS having no one to lean on OR UNDERSTAND.

OH YEAH I KNEW EXACTLY how all of that which shown to me in his eyes feels, so I felt much empathy for him. Here is the difference in this particular case.

SYMPATY: Thinking or even saying to the man something towards "Dang that must suck. I hate anyone is in that situation, and I hope it improves for you".

EMPATY: I know exactly how that feels, and it sucks. When I felt those things, all I wanted was for someone to treat me as a dignified human being, and maybe give me a little HOPE.

I rolled down the window, and simply said. Weather's really cooled off the last few days, hasn't it? To which he replied sure has. Supposed to be down near 30. He knew I saw him, so no pleasantries were really necessary. At that point , I simply said "Hey buddy, are you hungry?" I had zero doubt the man knew I had felt his anguish. He simply replied "Yes ma'am. " I said "Whatcha want , anything on the menu, don't worry about price. Honest, it's my pleasure." He did not even try to decline, but rather simply said, "God Bless You". My reply? "God has, and it is my honor", and I gave him a wink and a smile. He ordered 3 89 cent tacos, and 1 MEDIUM soda. I double checked if that was all he wished, and he said, "That would do him just fine."
So see? I did not experience what he did EXACTLY, but because I am very in tune with my OWN EMOTIONS AND FEELINGS, I was able to truly STAND IN HIS SHOES and say I KNOW HOW YOU FEEL?

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Carrie on January 14, 2010 at 5:55 AM:

And A footnote. Marlene's explanation is spot on. Assuming she means "have experienced the same EMOTION". NOT situation. If she did in fact mean EMOTION and not SITUATION, then I send her my apology for saying that was not quite factual, as it is. Good job Marlene!

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Carrie on January 14, 2010 at 6:14 AM:

Last note of caution to any fool who might truly have zero clue as to what is what... I BEG YOU:

SKIP OVER ENTRIES WHICH TELL YOU SYMPATHY MEANS I KNOW HOW THAT FEELS, THAT HAPPENED TO ME, ETC. as it does NOT mean that.

SKIP INSTEAD TO ENTRIES BY: Marlene, Kei, Brittani, and ROC (and myself I believe) to get a better understanding of these two similar but VERY DIFFERENT words.

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Andrew on March 14, 2010 at 1:15 PM:

Many years ago when I was struggling with the two concepts I was offered this:

Your friend is at the bottom of a well.

Empathy is you being at the top of the well with a rope and doing what you can in helping them out.

Sympathy is being in the well with them and struggling together to find a way of getting out.

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AHH on March 31, 2010 at 4:02 PM:

Haha, so many comments spanning many years - mainly because there are a lot of people getting these two words confused and it's possible in the modern lexicon the more common word sympathy has taken on the meaning of the more nuanced empathy

I came across this sight looking for a better explanation than my own and found some good ones (I like the brazilian well) and the helpful etymology

But I think I can provide a clearer distinction and also explain that often at times of sadness both apply. My interest however is in encouraging empathy as a good SKILL to learn

because empathy is not an emotional responce it is an intellectual responce. 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 responce because you need to forget you are you for a second to be them instead. This doesn't cone naturally and is a sophisticated approach and a good soft skill to have in business negotiation, leadership as well as social/friendship

if successful at appyling their reasoning to their situation (not strictly putting YOURself in their shoes) and UNDERSTANDING their predicament you may find you have an emotional responce that matches theirs: this would be sympathy! Having empathised your personal emotional response could be the opposite of sympathy - you understand they're in a hole but the last thing you want to do is climb in with them!

You can empathise without sharing emotion (that is sympathy) and the person who said that sympathy cards are not empathy cards because it would be too complex and insensitive to labour the difference is correct.

I haven't lost a parent and not close enough to feel the pain personally so I can't sympathise with what my grieving neighbour is going through but I can empathise so send a card anyway

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Paul on April 17, 2010 at 6:37 AM:

Some say sympathy is acknowledging a subjects situation having not experienced the same situation, and empathy is the same but having experienced the situation. Others say the opposite.

The truth is one is able to have both sympathy and empathy irrespective of whether one has experienced the same situation or not.

Sympathy is the process of identifying and feeling the feelings of another person, such as pain, sadness, guilt, annoyance and so on.

Empathy is the process of thinking what feelings would be felt if they were somebody else.

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Beth on April 19, 2010 at 3:36 PM:

As both words contain the Greek root "path," they both deal with "feelings." Both sympathy and empathy are separate terms with some very important distinctions.

Sympathy is when you give a handkerchief to the some one who is crying & Empathy means crying with the person who is crying.

With sympathy you feel for the person; youre sorry for them or pity them, but you dont specifically understand what theyre feeling. Sometimes were left with little choice but to feel sympathetic because we really cant understand the plight or predicament of someone else. It takes imagination, work, or possibly a similar experience to get to empathy.

Empathy can best be described as feeling with the person. Notice the distinction between for and with. To an extent you are placing yourself in that persons place, have a good sense of what they feel, and understand their feelings to a degree. It may be impossible to be fully empathetic because each individuals reactions, thoughts and feelings to tragedy are going to be unique. Yet the idea of empathy implies a much more active process. Instead of feeling sorry for, youre sorry with and have clothed yourself in the mantle of someone elses emotional reactions.

I believe that SYMPATHY expressed to a person suggests that person is alone in their turmoil. EMPATHY suggests youre in it with them, you can imagine what it is to be in their shoes, and you are together with them in emotional turmoil.

If we cannot empathize with others then we are unlikely to care about them. I also believe that empathy connects people together, it heals, builds trust and closes the loop.

Unless you have gone through child birth, lost a child, were violently raped you can only imagine. To say you can empathize is to say you can feel the pain... you cannot feel the pain! You can imagine it, but you canNOT feel it.

Carrie claims she is blessed and able to able to EQUATE. She then shares a story in which she says that she knew EXACTLY how he felt. I disagree, I believe she could imagine how he felt. Just as I believe she could imagine the pain one would fell if a broom handle was ramed up them, but there is no way she could know, let alone know exactly. I garantee that her hearing of this happening to someone and having it happen to herself, the feelings would be very different. I am sure with someone sharing such a painful event with her she would not be screaming in pain. Do you really believe that her hearing of someone going through such a horrific ordeal that she would know, could feel EXACTLY the same feeling as the one who experienced it???

No... ohhh - guess she wasn't blessed to be able to EQUATE that one.

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cortney on April 21, 2010 at 2:58 PM:

Sympathy is projection. It is referencing how we ourselves might think or feel in a similar circumstance, while empathy is how we might imagine the thoughts and feelings of others from their perspective. The degree of empathy and sympathy are not defined by the degree or the subject of concern, but by whose perspective is assumed

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Andreas on August 19, 2010 at 11:51 PM:

Could it be that in the case of sympathy one does not necessarily need to understand how or why the other is suffering or filled with joy but one suffers/enjoys because the other is hurting/enjoying, so you end up suffering/enjoying but for different reasons. E.g., person B doesn't know/care about baking cakes but hears a person A being sad about the cake having imploded and (since B cares about A, but not about cakes) feels hurt because A hurts? They 'together hurt' (sym pathy).

This in contrast to empathy, where one does somehow (by own experience, intuition, imagination, etc.) understand the other's emotion to a reasonable degree, but does not necessarily need to adopt the other's suffering/joy? E.g., B knows how it feels (roughly, we're not identical) when you've spent half a day on a cake and the result is a total disaster (by experience, or sheer imaginative power) and when B hears A suffering, B deeply understands the 'feeling from within' (em pathy), but might not suffer. (Instead could react quite emotionlessly but constructive by giving advice for the next time :P)

Can anyone relate to this view?

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Uhmm on March 27, 2011 at 11:01 PM:

SYM- Sympathy is general conforming; reaching a win-win situation. Doesn't need to be emotional, can be even purely logical-mathematical intelligence based. Could even be conforming ownself to needs of a nazi society.

EM- Empathy means feeling pain of another.


A narcissist can be sympathic but not empathic. Some can fake/act empathy, but it's not emotional and so on not real.

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Pierce Randall on April 26, 2011 at 8:42 PM:

The post and the dictionary are correct. The comments are wrong. There is no widely-accepted meaning for empathy as distinct from sympathy. The trend toward having less subtlety in language probably drives the idea that there should be a distinction--people don't want to be "merely sympathetic," because we have that (nonsensical) idiomatic phrase "I don't want your sympathy!"

People want something to say in such cases, but it's a nonce rejoinder. And what might it even mean, other than "really sympathetic"? That you feel someone's pain? That's impossible, because pain is a mental state, numerically distinct from what goes on in other minds. What people might mean is that they feel something that is just like the other person's pain, perhaps caused by the other person's pain. But that's just what sympathy is: sympathetic reactions are when two things share a causal relationship such that they behave harmoniously.

Anyway, the literature on sympathy has a better pedigree, with empathy cropping up as a more modern construction in people's pop psychologies. David Hume, Adam Smith, and Francis Hutcheson tried to base entire ethical systems on sympathy.

Herein lies the difference:

Empathy - pseudo-intellectual
Sympathy - accepted, clear concept

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Jake on November 11, 2011 at 12:26 PM:

Sympathy is having pity for some one, agreement or harmony in one's feelings.

For example, you hear that a 3 year old girl has been kidnapped. You don't get sad or get angry you just be go, "Oh that's a shame, God Bless her."

You know that getting kidnapped is a bad thing, and you know that her parents are feeling like crap and angry. So therefore you agree with their feelings. You do not feel. You don't break down crying. You just know, getting kidnapped is a bad thing.

Empathy is experiencing feelings that another person is feeling.

Which means, you see a bad car accident and you watch a child get crunched up in the metal and you see a parent running over to the girl clawing to get her child out and police gotta hold the parent down to prevent her from injuring. You break down crying, because you experience and feel what that parent is feeling.


and Pierce Randall is wrong. Empathy has been around since the really early 1900s, it's not pop psychology. There is a clear distinct difference.

Only reason why Adam Smith and blah blah wrote about it is because sympathy is also a political word such as communist sympathizers, meaning people who agree with communism.

And the word empathy wasn't around in the 1700s



Empathy is feeling
Sympathy is agreeing, it's purely objective

Reason why people don't other sympathy because they know they are not FEELING with them. They are just agreeing.

Psychopaths have do not have empathy, meaning they can not feel what others feel.

So that's why people say, they have a cold look or show no regret, it's because they really can't.

They know killing 10 people and eating them is wrong, and they know it isn't a very nice thing to do, and they know people will mess those ten people.

But they can not emotionally connect.

So again

Sympathy - agreeing, respecting, in harmony with ones feelings

Empathy - feeling and experiencing one's feeling


it is that simply folks.

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May on November 16, 2011 at 5:43 AM:

empathy is when u know someone else's feelings by standing in their shoes whereas sympathy is when u know what their feelings are plus u feel in the same way like them.

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