Thursday, 11 June 2015

What's the Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy?

A blonde woman crying
Crying Girl by Roy Liechtenstein

What's the Difference Between Empathy & Sympathy?

Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably in everyday English, which is a shame because there is a definite and very useful distinction between the two. If you're writing and come to a point where you want to use one of these words, it's worth taking the time to really consider which is most appropriate for what you're describing.

So What Is Empathy?

To be empathetic is perhaps the harder (or the rarer) of the qualities. According to the OED, empathy is defined as 'the power of mentally identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.' In layman's terms, being empathetic means being able to put yourself in another's shoes, either because of some inherent quality or because you've experienced something before.

So What Is Sympathy?

Sympathy is slightly different, and has a broader set of definitions to empathy. At its most basic, sympathy is a feeling of sorrow or pity for someone else's misfortunes. Thus, one can sincerely write a card marked With Deepest Sympathy, even if you've never experienced whatever it is the other person is suffering.

Some Examples of Empathy & Sympathy

When choosing between empathy and sympathy, it's a good idea to think about exactly what it is that's being felt: if it's sorrow or pity, than sympathy is likely the best option; however, if one is actually able to feel the other person's pain, either because of a natural empathetic quality or because of having experienced it personally, then the best choice is probably empathy.

To illustrate, I've never broken a bone in my entire life, and yet I can have the utmost sympathy for someone that has; real empathy, however, is a little harder, because it's just not something I've ever experienced. I have, however, smashed all of my teeth out (eek!), and thus when a friend has a dentally-related mishap, I am in a position to both sympathise and empathise.

On a far less serious (but perhaps more memorable) note, one might think of the poor zombies in a series like The Walking Dead. Those poor walkers! I have the utmost sympathy for them. But do I have empathy for the undead? Can I put myself in their shuffling shoes and imagine what it must be like to crave living flesh above all else? Umm ... no, not really. But I do feel sorry for them. Poor chaps! They have my deepest sympathies.

A young girl shuffling like a zombie
A shuffling zombie girl. Just because it's really cute.
(photo by Pietro Bellini)
Do you have any less bloody examples of sympathy and empathy?

Do please leave your most feeling comments in the box below..


  1. I have just finished reading a book 'Confessions of a Sociopath'. It states that normal balanced persons are 'empaths' because they can 'put themselves in another's shoes' and have fellow feeling, which sociopaths can't. Why am I reading a book on sociopaths? Because we have a neighbour who is one, and myself being basically an empath, I am trying to learn how best to deal with him.

    Wait till we get to Sociopathy in Lexicolatry; if I'm still alive!

    1. We will get to 'psychopath' before 'sociopath' (though not a lot sooner, in truth), so we eagerly await your psychological insights!

  2. Simple and understandable. Good explanation that halps to understand it better. And I like the example - very illustrative and funny)

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