I typically use "empathize" to mean: "to see or understand something from the other person's perspective." In my use, one needn't have actually experienced the problem in question to empathize with someone who is experiencing it. E.g. I've never had a child of mine die, but I like to think I can empathize with the Mom who has.

However, some've told me that that one can't empathize with someone's condition without experiencing it. This perspective seems counter-intuitive to me. Using it as a guide suggests "sympathize" is the more correct term. "Sympathize" has connotations of "pity", which in turn suggests, "to feel sorry for." I am a hospice nurse, and I've always seen myself as empathizing -- thoughtfully understanding -- with those in my care, not sympathizing.

What is the correct definition and usage of both "empathy" and "sympathy"?

  • I think you're on the right track. My understanding of the difference is that "empathizing" involves trying to understand another person's experience and its effects (i.e. "I can only imagine what you must be going through."), while "sympathizing" involves comparing a person's experience to an experience of your own (i.e. "I know how you feel."). I've heard people characterize sympathy as being more (potentially) selfish, as people sometimes make someone else's problem "about them" by talking about their own similar experience (and perhaps trying to one-up the person, even if unconsciously). – pyobum Aug 18 '16 at 4:41

Sympathy noun 1 Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune - ODO

Empathy noun The ability to understand and share the feelings of another. - ODO

With sympathy, you feel sorry that someone else has experienced something bad even if you have no idea how they feel. With empathy, if they are sorrowful, you feel their sorrow.

Etymology is not always accurate when considering current usage, but in this case, it is germane:

1908, modeled on German Einfühlung (from ein "in" + Fühlung "feeling"), which was coined 1858 by German philosopher Rudolf Lotze (1817-1881) as a translation of Greek empatheia "passion, state of emotion," from assimilated form of en "in" (see en- (2)) + pathos "feeling" (see pathos). A term from a theory of art appreciation that maintains appreciation depends on the viewer's ability to project his personality into the viewed object.

  • Not only do I see gravity and modesty and pride and courtesy and stateliness, but I feel or act them in the mind's muscles. This is, I suppose, a simple case of empathy, if we may coin that term as a rendering of Einfühlung; there is nothing curious or idiosyncratic about it; but it is a fact that must be mentioned. [Edward Bradford Titchener, "Lectures on the Experimental Psychology of the Thought Processes," 1909]

- etymonline.com

Here are a couple of citations that reinforce this view:

The page from diffen.com cited above has the following examples:

  • Empathy: "I know it's not easy to lose weight because I have faced the same problems myself."

  • Sympathy: "Trying to lose weight can often feel like an uphill battle."

  • Interestingly the word Einfühlung has been more and more replaced in German (my personal perspective says even a lot more than this ngram by Einfühlungsvermögen which certainly covers the ability to feel something one hasn't experienced. I would even say I haven't heard Einfühlung in years - if at all. – Helmar Aug 18 '16 at 10:11
  • @Helmar Thanks for the note :) . I don't speak German, but looking up an online dictionary, the extra part seems to translate to ability - so has the German term moved from "feeling into" to "the ability to feel into"? (This is irrelevant to the English, I recognise, but it's interesting to look at the shift in the German root concept.) – Lawrence Aug 18 '16 at 11:19
  • 1
    Yes, you got that exactly right. – Helmar Aug 18 '16 at 12:03

sympathy means to feel sorrow for the person but empathy means to put yourself in that person's shoes and it is therefore more intense.

  • 1
    Thanks for your contribution. There is a community policy that answers should be backed up by some kind of reference, such a quotation from a dictionary, a style guide, or the work of a well-known and respected writer. Please edit your question to add a reference like this. – sumelic Aug 18 '16 at 6:22


noun the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

In other words, it’s not about sharing similar experiences with somebody else: it’s about sharing feelings with somebody else. You can empathize with somebody even if you have never found yourself in similar circumstances. What matters is whether you can understand their feelings and put yourself in their shoes.

One of Oxford Dictionary’s examples of correct usage illustrates this:

“There is a frightening lack of empathy and of understanding of the condition of the elderly.”

The sentence isn’t saying that people have not experienced the condition of being elderly! The point is that people who haven’t reached old age have failed to properly feel for the elderly.

Sympathy, as you said, is about feeling pity and sadness because of somebody else’s condition.


I edited a part of https://blog.udemy.com/empathy-vs-sympathy/ for grammar and readability:

The Etymology and Dictionary Definitions of Empathy vs. Sympathy

Part of what complicates differentiating empathy and sympathy is: both words sound very similar and both concepts espouse similar things in practice. Let’s look first at the definitions of the two words and see what can conclude:

Empathy: [1] 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; [2] also : the capacity for this

Sympathy: (1) the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else’s trouble, grief, misfortune, etc. : a sympathetic feeling. (2) an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other.

The two are obviously very similar. Certainly, we begin to see a picture emerge. Conventional wisdom holds that where empathy is the feeling of “walking in another’s shoes,” sympathy is more of a feeling of being sorry or bereft, even on behalf of another person. After all, if you were to walk into any card or greeting store, you would likely find a number of “In Sympathy” cards to help express the feeling of loss you may have for another person, even if you are not going through the same situation. Still, the two are very alike, and you may still want further clarification for what the exact difference is between the two. The definition alone may not be quite enough to help separate sympathy from empathy, so let’s look at the etymology of each word.

Etymology is the study of the origin of language. Each word can be broken down into roots, suffix, and prefix, and each of those components have an origin; for instance, words with a Latin, Greek, or Germanic root are very common in the English language. So let’s look at the etymology of empathy vs. sympathy and see if we are able to discern any further information. In this case, we see that each word has its root in ancient Greek.

Empathy: Formed from the ancient Greek word empatheia with the prefix en (English: in) + the root pathos (feeling or passion), the word literally means to be “in feeling”.

Sympathy: Also formed from ancient Greek, the word “sympathy” comes from the old sympatheia and was formed from the prefix sum (with or together) and again with the root pathos (which here can mean either feeling or suffering), and so can here mean either “with suffering”, “together suffering”, or “together feeling”.

This clarifies a little more how each words was developed and meant to be used, right? Once we look more closely, we can see the main difference in the two words: to empathize with someone, is to assume their feelings upon yourself and allow yourself to feel what they feel.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is more the act of commiseration. It is an acknowledgement that you can't possibly feel the same way or truly share another’s grief, but that you can understand it. It’s a little like the difference between, “I know how you feel”, and “I can imagine what that feels like”. For some reason, of late, sympathy has gotten something of a bad rap, but that’s a little unfair. Both sympathy and empathy have their place in the social sphere and both are valid ways of relating to someone.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.