Empathy vs. Sympathy


The terms and empathy and sympathy are often confused, and with good reason. Both of the words deal with the relationship one has to the feelings and experiences of another. Today we explore the differences between these terms and how they are most commonly used.

Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning “suffering, feeling.” The prefix sym- comes from the Greek sýn meaning “with, together with” and the prefix em- derives from the Greek en- meaning “within, in.”

Sympathy is the older of the two terms. It entered English in the mid-1500s with a very broad meaning of “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.” Since then, the term has come to be used in a more specific way. Nowadays sympathy is largely used to convey commiseration, pity, or feelings of sorrow for someone who is experiencing misfortune. This prevailing sense is epitomized in the category of greeting card most often labeled “sympathy” that specializes in messages of support and sorrow for those in a time of need.

Consider the following examples:

“There was little sympathy in England for David Beckham … when he received a red card in a 1998 World Cup loss to Argentina.” –New York Times,  July 2, 2015

“…the new [Facebook] feature would automatically replace the existing ‘like’ button with a ‘sympathize’ one when users tag their statuses with a negative emotion, like ‘sad’ or ‘depressed.’” –New York, December 6, 2013

Empathy entered English a few centuries after sympathy—in the late 1800s—with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology, which referred to the physiological manifestation of feelings. Unlike sympathy, empathy has come to be used in a more broad way than it was when it was first introduced into the lexicon; the term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, thereby vicariously experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

Consider the following examples:

“…many of us believe that if more lives are at stake, we will — and should — feel more empathy (i.e., vicariously share others’ experiences) and do more to help.” –New York Times, July 10, 2015

“I think that’s almost what it is sometimes if you sum up what acting is. It’s just the ultimate expression of empathy.” –Emily Blunt, Los Angeles Times, December 8, 2014

To sum up the differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

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  1. Rebeccah -  March 4, 2016 - 9:26 am

    Sympathy is having a feeling or emotion in response to the experience of another, as though one had the same experience oneself.

    Empathy is having the same feeling as another person. To have empathy requires understanding not only the experience, but the other person, as well.

  2. doug -  March 4, 2016 - 3:31 am

    What is the difference between ignorance and apathy?

    I don’t know and I don’t care. :-D

  3. Jeff -  March 2, 2016 - 6:40 pm

    i think empathy because its more useful

  4. ale -  March 1, 2016 - 7:38 pm

    lol looks like a tank with no cannon

    • luvyurnurse -  March 3, 2016 - 3:54 am

      Outstanding article an sincere follow-ups enhanced it.
      I had a psychology instructor who said it perfectly for me. As a caregiver, “SYMPATHY IS GOOD, EMPATHY WILL KILL YOU.”

    • patricia riley -  March 3, 2016 - 8:29 pm

      I definately prefer empathy as there is a connotation of PITY when one uses sympathy, While a USAF Nurse during Vietnam A MARINE double amputee, told me quite emphaticaly YOU WANT SYMPATHY IT;S FOUND IN THE DICTIONARY – HALF WAY BETWEEN

  5. Catjack -  February 29, 2016 - 1:42 am

    I read the replies instead of the article and now I know the difference :D

    I don’t really use these two words that often anyways, though..

  6. :D -  February 28, 2016 - 1:06 pm

    :D ;D :’( ;(

    • christy -  March 1, 2016 - 1:44 pm

      like the smile:> ;)

      • Bob -  March 2, 2016 - 8:12 pm


    • jalin -  March 2, 2016 - 7:43 am

      im dead

      • Anna -  March 3, 2016 - 6:13 am

        NO your not ;)

        • Ella -  March 3, 2016 - 3:57 pm

          Of course she’s not.

    • Anna -  March 3, 2016 - 6:12 am

      :) :D

  7. uuuuuuuuuuuu -  February 27, 2016 - 1:55 pm


  8. Abdul Rehman Butt -  February 27, 2016 - 7:52 am

    I am delighted to educate myself with various reflection of thoughts and expressions about these two words . I feel these noble souls are real heroes as they strive to wipe out ignorance and help deeper understanding about these beautiful tools..

  9. David Meneghini -  February 25, 2016 - 7:40 pm

    Wow, in the company of such educated people. Great article, I enjoyed the article, and the comments. Word and it s history are a fun hobby of mine. Thank-you . Skinny(name I by)

  10. Conan -  February 25, 2016 - 2:57 pm

    Putting yourself in someone’s shoes does not automatically mean you wish for their pain to be alleviated. Take, for instance, a sadist. They may be quite empathetic (i.e., identify with your pain), but quite the opposite of sympathetic, by wanting your pain to continue.

    Hope this helps.

    • namea -  February 28, 2016 - 9:02 am

      I agree

    • John Kelly -  March 1, 2016 - 2:22 pm

      Conan I think you have misunderstood the terms.
      A sadist neither empathises nor sympathizes with others. He is a sociopath, a narcissist whose emotions are centred purely upon himself. His feeling, his desires, his satisfaction.

      To be precise, I believe that the article is not strictly correct. The dictionary’s interpretation is too literal (in a linguistic sense) and takes no account of actual cases of empathetic human responses.
      An empathetic person does not willingly choose to place himself in another’s shoes… that is a conscious an act of a sympathizer.
      An empath feels another person’s distress – regardless of his willingness to participate, (Although he will not experience that other’s actual physical pain)! It is a matter of the empath’s innate nature coming to the fore. A person who faints at a gory scene (in reality or in fiction) is an empath.
      Someone who hands a dollar to a homeless person is a sympathiser.
      A sadist is neither, he is an emotional enantiomorph with no insight (however slight) into another person’s soul.

      • Maybelle -  March 3, 2016 - 6:42 am

        I think there is a difference between an “Empath” and an “empathizer” (so to speak). The former has a sort of science fiction-y or supernatural connotation: a being who automatically feels what those around it are feeling, positive or negative, without choice or conscious control.

        The latter connotes a more real-world individual, who feels not just pity (a coarse word for sympathy, not entirely synonymous) but can also fully imagine himself or herself in that other person’s shoes, experiencing that same feeling, usually as a direct result of having had the same or similar experience.

        For example, as a woman who has given birth, I can both sympathize AND empathize with another woman in labor. I can, however, have only SYMPATHY for a man who has sustained an injury to his reproductive parts, as I have no idea what that feels like.

        Just my 2 cents; I’m not a scholar, just a lover of words.

      • Hector R -  March 3, 2016 - 9:04 am

        I agree. Besides the article did not claim you would wish for their pain to be alleviated even if you feel it is implied.

  11. MamCrouch -  February 24, 2016 - 12:14 pm

    If you have ever had a kidney stone, you can say you “sympathize” with a women who has given birth. Both are equally painful!!

    • No need -  February 28, 2016 - 7:29 pm

      How do you know both are equally painful?? Cause for some by your like 4th child it doesn’t hurt as much as the first. FYI..

      • augrad -  March 2, 2016 - 7:15 am

        But I’m sure you remember what that first one was like, so if you have had at least one child and had a kidney stone, you will know what both are like, no?

        • Hector R -  March 3, 2016 - 9:10 am

          I had a migraine last week so I know about the pain of child birth. Yes, that’s my horrible attempt at sarcasm. Sorry. Anyway, wouldn’t moms that have had kidney stones removed the only ones qualified on this subject? Wait. Why are we so off topic?

  12. NSW -  February 24, 2016 - 11:03 am

    I thank you for the history on these two words…however i believe it to be incorect on your explanation of how they are used or should be used today. As a person who can be catagorizd as an Empath, i have looked into and discussed this topic on these two terms often
    Empathy- is where you join in the emotion good or bad, and actually feel that other persons pain/ joy along with them.
    Sympathy- to know/understand ones pains/joys without becoming part of that pain physically. Having that added ability to sheild oneself.

    Thanks for letting me share my thought & hoping i conveyed it.

    • JOHN H. -  February 27, 2016 - 3:20 pm

      Your explanation is perfectly accurate.

    • clm -  February 29, 2016 - 2:00 pm


    • Teresa -  March 1, 2016 - 2:40 am

      My sentiments exactly!

    • Teresa -  March 1, 2016 - 2:41 am

      oops. . .
      My sentiments exactly : )

    • Hector R -  March 3, 2016 - 9:20 am

      I sympathize with your frustration about the article and empathize with your emotion on the topic.

  13. madri -  February 24, 2016 - 9:33 am

    Please note that I have stopped receiving your use of terms like a v b and would like to continue receiving same. Thanks.

  14. Katie -  February 24, 2016 - 9:01 am


  15. Star -  February 24, 2016 - 6:25 am

    I don’t care.

    • Linda -  February 27, 2016 - 4:18 pm


      • You Already Know -  February 29, 2016 - 8:55 pm


    • Hector R -  March 3, 2016 - 9:22 am

      inanimate object

  16. kanw -  February 23, 2016 - 4:24 am

    It’s really funny the fact that these two words have ended up with totally different meanings in English language from those they have in Greek.
    Empathy stands for hatred in Greek whereas sympathy is only positively charged.

  17. Bradley Ly -  February 22, 2016 - 6:16 pm

    A good article indeed!Thank you people!

  18. Bradley Ly -  February 22, 2016 - 6:14 pm

    They sound similar,#wut?!

  19. Mark -  February 22, 2016 - 12:09 pm

    An example of how I’ve always distinguished the two words: If you want to defeat an enemy, it’s a good strategy to empathize with him, because that allows you to understand what motivates the enemy or what he might do next.

    However, sympathizing with an enemy doesn’t make much sense. That would indicate that you’re taking the side of the enemy.

    During the Iraq War, there was a feeling that understanding the enemy’s motivations and actions somehow meant sympathizing with them. So we didn’t see the civil war there coming, we didn’t account for the disbanding of the Ba’ath Party, we didn’t recognize the centuries-old hatreds between Muslim sects. Et cetera.

    • John Kelly -  March 1, 2016 - 3:01 pm

      Your understanding of empathise is correct with respect to the original Greek context… However languages grow, mature and mutate; and words occasionally reverse their previous meaning. Especially-so when taken from one culture and transplanted into another which has; (possibly) different mores.
      Empathy had a very narrow meaning in its mother tongue but then broadened into a more-general term to describe a full range of emotions once it became a part of the English lexicon.
      In a deeper sense, “you” were not actually empathizing with your “enemy” at all when seeking to understand his motives and strategies etc… What you were actually doing was looking within YOURSELF (putting yourself in his shoes) in order to better circumvent his future actions. In other words; you were not empathizing with “him” … you were looking into your own soul, your motivations, your strategies…
      If one refuses to sympathize with an “enemy” (because it may be viewed as taking his side) then that negativity blinds one to the very motives and strategies one seeks to discern in others.
      Your final paragraph speaks for itself and proves my point.

      • Hector R -  March 3, 2016 - 9:31 am

        I totally agree. To sympathize with the enemy, means to side with them. To empathize with the enemy is probably a better way to put. It would allow a soldier to restrain himself from cruel and unusual punishment of an enemy combatant. It would also in a way allow to understand their actions and possible motives.

  20. jcm -  February 22, 2016 - 10:14 am


  21. Justin -  February 22, 2016 - 10:13 am


    • Jiwon -  February 22, 2016 - 6:36 pm


  22. Shekhar -  February 21, 2016 - 6:46 am

    I have a simple example for distinguishing these two words – Sympathy & Empathy

    Think of a Situation – You are in a small office doing your work at desk – and a small boy of Tea Vendor comes and serve you Tea – he is wearing a torn shirt. -

    If you feel Sympathetic towards him – ‘Feeling For HIM’ – you may think of giving more Tips to him or may be your old shirt –

    But if you have empathy – you will think from his point of view – He wants to be like YOU – he wants to attain a position like you to donate a shirt to someone – in Such a Case if you help in his education – You May fulfil his desire. This can Happen only when you

    ‘Think With Him’ [Empathy]

    and not just

    ‘Think for him’ [Sympathy]

    I dont know if i am very correct – I will wait for being educated more on it by all readers.

    • Iggy -  February 25, 2016 - 10:31 am

      Thank you Shekhar. Your examples are smart, simple and exactly right. I think you have learned well.

    • NL -  March 3, 2016 - 9:03 pm

      Thanks a lot.

  23. jk -  February 20, 2016 - 7:41 am

    Being a “sensitive” I am going with how Trout explained it:

    Trout – September 13, 2015 – 9:47 am
    Sympathy = “Oh, that sucks.”
    Empathy = “I feel your pain.”

    Example: I was sitting next to a stranger who was telling me about a companion dog of hers had died – and while she was NOT crying, tears were running down my face because I, literally, felt her pain.

    When I am reading something bad in the news that happened – and I am not there speaking to the people involved. I can have sympathy for those people without having experienced those things myself. If I am watching the news . . . sometimes I can feel their pain.

  24. helena -  February 20, 2016 - 6:38 am

    I use smapthy but I also use empathy by putting myself into someone else’s shoe. Everyone should do that for there rights, right?

  25. alan -  February 19, 2016 - 1:45 am

    Sympathize: been there; felt that
    Empathize: I can only imagine what you’re going through

    • stevebob -  February 20, 2016 - 8:22 pm

      Other way around, friend.

      • Donna -  February 24, 2016 - 5:08 am

        You got it, stevebob! I have a rare and painful disease: when I talk with someone who has pain, I sympathize. When I talk with someone who has the same disease as I, I truly empathize because I KNOW how they feel.

        • Pam -  February 26, 2016 - 11:28 am

          Yup! I agree Donna!

    • Timmy -  February 21, 2016 - 1:44 pm

      That’s backwards.
      Empathize is ‘been there; felt that,’ used when you have the experience to emulate another’s emotions.
      Sympathize is the pity/ feeling bad on their behalf.

      • Ronald Slyter -  February 26, 2016 - 7:52 am

        Yes Alan you have the definition mixed up

    • tanuja -  February 21, 2016 - 4:00 pm

      you got it mixed up

    • Jeffrey -  February 21, 2016 - 5:18 pm

      Hey Alan –

      I hope it will not be too impertinent to make a couple of fine tunings to your definitions (or paraphrases):

      “Sympathize: been there; felt that”, yes, if you then add something along the lines of: “and therefore I can and do definitely feel deeply for you in your trouble”.

      It’s the capacity to CARE for another in his/her trouble that sympathy reflects.

      “Empathize: I can only imagine what you’re going through”

      The words “only imagine” distance you. There’s no distance in empathy. It’s more like: “I can so vividly and sensitively imagine what you’re going through that I feel as though I’m actually going through it myself.”

      Again, I hope you will not mind these suggestions.

      • Gracie -  February 23, 2016 - 11:30 am

        THis comment made that article easier to understand

      • KDK -  February 25, 2016 - 5:05 pm

        Thank you for that clarification. Pointing out the distancing phrase as incorrect, and your sentence more clearly paints the picture for me to remember the difference.

    • GrammarGuru -  February 22, 2016 - 5:01 am

      I agree! ;)

      • Rusty Trim -  February 24, 2016 - 8:36 am

        me to

    • cilla -  February 23, 2016 - 11:49 am

      that’s it! you nailed!

    • Catjack -  February 29, 2016 - 1:30 am

      ..wait, I’m confused.

      I looked at the replies and some of them agree that it’s correct, while there are other people saying that its the other way around..


      • Catjack -  February 29, 2016 - 1:36 am

        I got impatient for an answer(I waited for what, 10 seconds?) and I decided to search it up myself..

        Alan’s definition IS mixed up..

    • John Kelly -  March 1, 2016 - 2:33 pm

      alan – February 19, 2016 – 1:45 am

      Sympathize: been there; felt that
      Empathize: I can only imagine what you’re going through

      Sympathize: been there; felt that – I can only imagine what you’re going through!
      Empathize: You come-to in the middle of a situation and ask “what happened?” They tell you. “You just passed out”!


  26. Samantha -  February 18, 2016 - 11:28 am

    i like sympathy better then empathy:)

    • Kevin -  February 20, 2016 - 8:49 am


    • Larry King -  February 20, 2016 - 5:29 pm


    • Shekhar -  February 21, 2016 - 6:37 am


      There is no question of what one likes – The discussion is to understand the difference between two words – however – I have sympathy for you – and I empathise your feeling

    • Prabahar -  February 22, 2016 - 4:44 am

      I like too!

  27. Alexnomikos -  February 18, 2016 - 7:45 am

    Just to say, as a native Greek speaker, nowadays the word “empathy” in Greek (the original Greek word used in a greek context), has a totally negative meaning, like “envy” or “be hostile towards someone”.
    When I was learning English, this quite confused me, however knowing that it all derives from the Greek word “pathos”, which can have both meanings, positive and negative, it does make sense.

    • Philip Matsikoudis -  February 18, 2016 - 3:39 pm

      Being an American of Greek ethnicity, I have been interested in the many variations in Greek of certain names. My father hails from the region of Macedonia, Greece. My name is Philip, after my father’s eldest brother. As a young child my father when he played with me called me ‘Philip of Macedonia’ of ‘Philippedis.’ My father’s name was Elpidoforos, who was called ‘Al.’ In the United States he went by, the name of ‘Allen.’ I always thought his mane seemed more akin to ‘Alexander.’ Especially since my father was a Macedonia…in fact, he always emphasized to me that we were Macedonians, but Greeks first. I have seen many variations of the name Alexander in Greek, with the most common being ‘Alexandros.’ I see your name is ‘Alexnomikos,’ which appears to be a variation of the name Alexander in English. In Greek, how was Alexander the Great’s name pronounced. I have seen it pronounced it a few different ways, mostly as ‘Alexandros.’ If possible, can you clarify this?

      • Boyan Selena-Jovanovich -  February 21, 2016 - 10:14 am

        Hello Philip,

        As being a Serb living in the US for over 25 years, and knowing History of the Byzantines pretty well, I’d like to share something with you.
        My son, who was born in NYC is named Filip – a very common name in the Balkans. Why I named him Filip, v. Philip? Because of the Greek letter “F” (which, of course looks different in the Greek alphabet), that was used at the time of Filip, Alexander the Great’s father. The “ph” combination, however, comes from Latin – for the sound of an “f” about a century later, as the Roman literacy runs about a hundred years after the Greek on the History timeline.
        Hope I didn’t astray much from the main topic…

      • Jayosn -  February 25, 2016 - 2:40 pm

        It is Alexandros I’m 99.9% sure personly I’m a Greek in my soul if not in blood.

    • Michelle -  February 20, 2016 - 6:22 pm

      Your expression of this perspective is very helpful in illustrating that there are cultural differences in the meanings of words even of the same language. A deeper understanding of this may help those of us who are sensitive to these differences prevent conflicts in our interactions with people. Thank you!

    • Michelle -  February 20, 2016 - 6:29 pm

      My reply of 2/20/2016 – 6:22 pm was meant for Alexnomikos’ entry. (Sorry for any confusion.)

    • Michelle -  February 20, 2016 - 6:39 pm

      Your expression of this perspective is very helpful in illustrating that there are cultural differences in meanings of words even of the same language. A deeper understanding of this may help those of us who are sensitive to these differences avoid conflicts in our interactions with people. Thank you!

    • Michelle -  February 20, 2016 - 6:41 pm

      Please forgive my errors in submitting my reply. This is actually my very first entry in a blog. I’m learning.

  28. Elle Esse -  February 17, 2016 - 9:10 pm

    Here’s a shorthand: Sympathy is distinguished from empathy by being shaded with pity or regret. One cannot be sympathetic without at the same time being empathetic. However one can be empathetic uncolored with the sorrow of sympathy. (One exception for sympathy is when it’s used to convey dispassionate agreement, as in “sympathy for Libertarian politics”, but ambiguous in the phrase “sympathy for the devil”. It can mean either pity for the devil, or agreement with the devil. Stuff for poets to exploit.

    • Philip Matsikoudis -  February 18, 2016 - 3:48 pm

      “SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL” was a famous song written by Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones which was based on the Russian Novel by Mikhail Bulgakovl “The Master and Margarita.”

      The song is sung by Jagger as a first-person narrative from the point of view of Lucifer:

      “ Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste; ”

      These opening lines reflect Jagger’s direct inspiration by The Master and Margarita, with the book opening with the similar “‘Please excuse me,’ he said, speaking correctly, but with a foreign accent, ‘for presuming to speak to you without an introduction.’”

      Backed by an intensifying rock arrangement, the narrator, with chilling narcissistic relish, recounts his exploits over the course of human history and warns the listener; the last line is used near-verbatim at another point in the song:

      “ If you meet me, have some courtesy, Have some sympathy, and some taste; Use all your well-learned politesse, Or I’ll lay your soul to waste ”

      On this, Jagger continued in the Rolling Stone interview: “…it’s a very long historical figure — the figures of evil and figures of good — so it is a tremendously long trail he’s made as personified in this piece.”[1]

      At the time of the release of Beggars Banquet the Rolling Stones had already raised some hackles for sexually forward lyrics such as “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and for dabbling in Satanism (their previous album, while containing no direct Satanic references, had been titled Their Satanic Majesties Request), and “Sympathy” brought these concerns to the fore, provoking media rumors and fears among some religious groups that The Rolling Stones were devil-worshippers and a corrupting influence on youth. The lyrics’ focus, however, is on atrocities in the history of mankind, including wars of religion (“I watched with glee while your kings and queens fought for ten decades for the Gods they made”), the violence of the Russian Revolution of 1917 (“I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change, killed the Tsar and his ministers – Anastasia screamed in vain”) and World War II (“I rode a tank, held a general’s rank when the Blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank”). The lyrics also refer to the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The recording sessions for the track were in progress when the latter was killed, and the words were changed from “Who killed John Kennedy?” to “who killed the Kennedys?”

      • Michelle -  February 21, 2016 - 7:44 pm

        Outstanding post! Filled with informative and thought-provoking content. Thank you.

      • Jay -  February 22, 2016 - 5:00 am

        Wow, I don’t if I’m more impressed by your analysis of the song or surprised by the possibility that Mick may have read that book! Great job.

  29. Anna -  February 17, 2016 - 9:56 am


  30. Winnie -  February 16, 2016 - 5:18 pm

    learned this in 6 grade guidance class, haha!!!

    • Scott -  February 20, 2016 - 6:35 pm

      Did they teach you about humility or did you miss that lesson bragging about your accomplishments to your classmates. O!

  31. Electronic Esther -  February 13, 2016 - 3:49 pm

    I was a nurse for many years. In school we were taught we should empathize not sympathize with our patients. This means relate to and understand another’s experience/feelings/situation but not take them on as our own. It’s maintaining an emotional separation; it’s not taking on the feelings of others but still being able understand and be sensitive their needs in a particular situation.

    • Sunjay -  February 16, 2016 - 5:24 pm

      Empathy is the ability to feel some one else pain in my heart. ♥

      • Prabahar -  February 22, 2016 - 4:46 am

        Excellent definition; i like this!!!

    • Montana Grammy -  February 17, 2016 - 8:10 am

      I like this explanation.

      • Montana Grammy -  February 17, 2016 - 8:12 am

        Ta da!!!! My first successful ‘blog’ comment.

        • Someone u should know -  February 19, 2016 - 5:16 pm

          Cool… NOT.

    • crnaray -  February 19, 2016 - 1:37 pm

      As a nurse, I was taught that empathy was the middle ground between sympathy and apathy. I appreciate Electronic Esther’s definition as it sums up the differences that I was taught eons ago.

    • HAN -  February 21, 2016 - 8:47 pm

      Thank you so much ,its much more easy to understand!

    • Mark Miglio -  February 23, 2016 - 7:01 am

      I agree, Electronic E. Thanks for sharing. There are so may horrible outcomes to be sympathetic with that I could almost never myself be happy or fully effective while feeling the losses and pain of those that are marginalized or will become hurt or victimized, yet I empathize (fully understand) with everyone, even understanding the evil the of the cold-blooded insane (Hitler).

    • jon -  February 25, 2016 - 4:55 pm

      So do you mean you were taught to sympathize not empathize with your patients?

    • Wanda -  March 2, 2016 - 7:48 am

      Thanks for this discussion on sympathy and empathy; closely related words it would seem. I like Electronic Esther’s example. Sympathy, to me, is more emotional and something we feel about and for someone in a difficult situation but sympathy isn’t always helpful to the person. Empathy, however, as given in the nurse example, can be more helpful for the sufferer and the helper because the empathetic person knows not to get drawn into the problem but to be more of a support, with the motive of helping to lift the person up. Like its not so wise to jump into a pool to save a drowning person, you could get drawn in too, but to throw them a lifeline. This is just my take on it.

  32. Aoranald Smith -  February 10, 2016 - 1:42 pm

    Simplistically: sympathy=with empathy=within

    • Ob -  February 12, 2016 - 12:59 am

      I note:
      we don’t say we sympathise with joy, it’s only about suffering.
      We apply ‘empathy’ to general situations as well as specific and criticise those we think have little empathy, in extremis calling them psychopaths.
      We say we “offer sympathy” and have greetings cards with the word on.
      Sympathy has become associated with pity.
      The meaning of ‘sympathy’ has become more social, or moral, even. We say we “have no sympathy” with someone suffering in consequence of their own fault, yet may have empathy.
      Perhaps that’s why ‘empathy’ needed coining in the first place.

      • mya -  February 16, 2016 - 12:29 pm

        i would like this app but it has a lot of meanings to it so it is to much for me but i like empathy .!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • simply sexy -  February 16, 2016 - 5:25 pm

        OB = Only Bad? Old Bastard? Orange Basketball? Orange is the new Black?

      • Polemicist -  February 18, 2016 - 2:53 pm

        Ob, Your post is by far the best I have ever came across for the distinction between these two words. I would like to quote you on my page; I feel bad that I can only credit this insight to, “- Ob”. Anyway, thank you very much!

  33. Lecturer of English Literature -  February 9, 2016 - 6:47 pm

    Both are forms of commiseration:

    Empathy — to UNDERSTAND what one may be going through not having gone through it yourself

    Sympathy — to KNOW what one may be go going through because you have gone through it yourself

    Thus, it is only possible for a man to feel empathy for labor pains, but a woman who has given birth may feel sympathy for another who might be going through the same thing she once did.

    • Kez -  February 10, 2016 - 2:42 pm

      Empathy is to know the emotions of the subject (person) this can be felt from a distance especially if the person is special to the empath and has an outburst of emotion, good, bad or otherwise.

      Sympathy is to think about how the subject (person) may be feeling In that situation drawing on ones own experiences which may be similar.

      • meanings_are_life -  February 17, 2016 - 6:02 am

        who is kez?

    • Rijiin -  February 10, 2016 - 9:14 pm

      I agree and and It is simple!

      • Freddie g poterala -  February 12, 2016 - 7:55 am

        Empathy is when expresses is simply yes I lost my spouse,parent,pet this is simple you are saying I really know what you are going thru. Sympathy is just a word of deep felt regret that you are hurting. Simple

    • Iyuanna Brown -  February 17, 2016 - 11:36 am

      :) Perfect

      • Elizabeth -  February 22, 2016 - 6:29 am

        What does this mean?

    • trevor corso -  February 17, 2016 - 2:28 pm

      My understanding is just the reverse. I, as a man,can only feel sympathy for a woman’s labor pains. Not empathy.

      • Marco -  February 19, 2016 - 7:44 am

        I believe this is how it was taught to me, as well.

    • Mark Miglio -  February 23, 2016 - 7:23 am

      I think that a very good actor or a very sensitive person can feel full sympathy with anything. Meaning that they feel the same feelings and pain of another, intentionally or not, and so can become, themselves, sick or able to experience the pain of another. I think that we men have all probably had at least one past life as a female and that some of us may actually be able to re-experience the full pain of labor.

  34. Scia -  February 9, 2016 - 10:41 am

    While the basic definition listed here is the same as what I learned, the mechanic listed is different. The way I learned it, sympathy can be more voluntary, while empathy is more INvoluntary and automatic. Like you can choose to sympathize with someone – to feel sorry for them. But empathy is where you actually pick up on someone else’s emotions and feel them, whether you want to or not.

    People will list different scientific or spiritual reasons for this, but one way or another, people will actually, unconsciously, give off their emotions, and some people are more sensitive to the emotional signals than others. It’s actually possible to have too much empathy – like some people could meet a person briefly and be overwhelmed by the other person’s emotions very strongly (overcoming their own emotions) for a very long time.

    Also thought I’d mention: my martial arts teacher describes sympathy as seeing someone stuck in a deep hole and giving them a ladder. By contrast, empathy is jumping in the hole with them – so then you get two people stuck in the hole, unable to get out (“So don’t do that” he says).

    • Paulustrious -  February 22, 2016 - 5:16 am

      In my understanding you nailed it. Let us take a fictional example – Sherlock Holmes as played by Benedict Cumberbatch (and even more so by his brother). He could say “I’m sorry to hear that. You have my sympathy”. However he would be incapable of intuitively and emotively understanding how the other person feels. Empathy is innate emotional thing, a skill, sharing the feelings of another. It is not a skill I possess (and I am not the aforementioned psychopath). But I can intellectually understand the pain / grief/ disappointment / sadness / whatever the other person is experiencing and express my (sincere) sympathy.

      I do still use sympathy in an non-emotional way. A mathematician may have a new idea and I am sympathetic with his position although …. etc. For some reason my dog just decided to fart. I’m not sure if that is his reply to my comment.

    • jon -  February 25, 2016 - 6:06 pm

      i LOVE this! Great explanation. T

  35. gameboyblue -  February 8, 2016 - 5:03 pm

    I once heard a spiritual guru refer to the difference, and explained the only way to possibly help someone is empathy, and NOT to use sympathy. Sympathy is bringing yourself “vibrationally” to their level, misery loves company so to speak.
    Empathy is understanding the emotions of the other individual, and then seeing them as someone who has the power to change their life. Despite these present challenges.

  36. Kim -  November 23, 2015 - 4:12 pm

    So is it proper to say ” I don’t empathize with you” when you are trying to say that you don’t feel bad for someone?

    • jeremiah -  December 15, 2015 - 11:15 am

      So basically sympathy is you don’t experience it but you do feel that there hurt. I see now that love at thirteen only longs for sympathy. THOSE THIN SLICES OF BURBURRY CHEESE

    • Freddie g poterala -  February 12, 2016 - 8:00 am

      Kim if you feel that way don’t say anything. Just look solemn and move on.

    • Jools -  February 16, 2016 - 11:13 am

      No, quite the opposite. If you don’t feel bad for them you show them no sympathy. But if you understand why they feel bad, you empathise.
      Not to empathise means you have no idea why they feel that way

  37. Mike -  November 16, 2015 - 10:14 pm

    Before the word ‘empathy’, people used ‘sympathy’ to mean empathy – ‘the sym’ means ‘with’ in the Greek; when people describe it in English now, they say ‘to feel for…’ (It’s popped up a bunch of times above ;-) )

    It’s only after the empathy appeared on the scene that it’s evolved to mean more and sympathy, less.

    I find it interesting that there are still languages in which the word ‘empathy’ doesn’t exist (or if it does exist, it’s basically the word ‘empathy’, phoneticized.) That, to me, indicates that cultures feel a level of oneness with the feelings of people in a much richer and profound way than we give credit for, regardless of the word used. :) Researchers claim that mirror neurons may play a role in empathy, so humans were feeling for/with each other then since the beginning of humanity. Before empathy was sympathy, but underlying both is the experience of the human condition that is much deeper than both.

    • tamar -  February 27, 2016 - 11:06 pm


  38. Rensky -  October 21, 2015 - 1:15 am

    In my own opinion,

    [empathy] = is an act of showing or making gesture so that they will notice that you are available to comfort the feelings of a person.

    [sympathy] = is an appropriate with a proper way of approach to a person who need somebody to comfort his/her emotion.

  39. Joevan Almagro -  October 12, 2015 - 9:30 pm

    ….thanks it adds my knowledge in reading!! specifically in English words.:)

    • meanings_are_life -  February 17, 2016 - 6:03 am

      blah blah blah is awso,me

  40. Jeanette -  October 7, 2015 - 7:29 pm

    I see, as a seventy something, that some of you are young and really desire to learn more about language. Bravo! If I empathize, I walk a mile in your moccasins and really care. Sympathy is good, but it implies less personal involvement.
    We send sympathy cards because we feel sorry for you. We go to the funeral and/or bring food because we feel your pain and have empathy. I feel sympathy (pity) for those who don’t care about speaking well. If you’re reading this, empathy…be cause we’re all learners.

    • jon -  February 25, 2016 - 6:31 pm

      I LOVE this Jeanette! I am 27 and I love reading this post and comments. When I was younger I use to be interested in English and language but I had a hard time in school and it impacted the way I learned. I got discouraged and eventually thought there was no point in pursing my interest in these things. Recently the fire has ignited again and I find myself googling and reading a lot and becoming excited about learning english again. (Last month I was learning the different kinds of figures of speeches and I was filled with joy that this interested me so much). I am reading two books including a great book called “The Creative Habit” by Twyla Tharp (amazing!) and I am finding so much joy in this, because I unfortunately did not read much at all before this last year. Things are working slowly but I see a transformation in me happening that I didn’t think would happen. I still struggle with memory and remembering what I read, or struggle with self criticism when I write, but seeing myself make that effort has been rewarding. Anyway, thank you for your post!

  41. leofwin -  September 29, 2015 - 2:58 am

    Both pointless Greek words borrowed by renaissance snobs who were in love with turning English into a snobby Latin/French/Greek hybrid. Like George Orwell said, “writers are always haunted with the notion that Greek and Latin words are mightier than Anglo-Saxon words”. That isn’t the case but many English speakers subconsiously slip into this way of thought without realising.
    How about the perfectly good clear and lovely Anglish term: evensorrow = sympathy. No need to look in a dictionary of Greek for that..

  42. Tem -  September 23, 2015 - 2:19 pm

    Sympathy: when you feel sorry for someone.
    Empathy: When feel someon’s pain. To consider someone’s state of emotion before yours. Simply to put someone before you.

    • elisabith -  October 7, 2015 - 6:26 pm

      ohhhhhh. so thats the difference

    • elisabith -  October 7, 2015 - 6:29 pm

      i get the two confused

      • meanings_are_life -  February 17, 2016 - 6:05 am

        same bro same

    • JC -  February 14, 2016 - 11:30 am

      agree.. particularly since “lack of empathy” is a characteristic of a narcissist

      • meanings_are_life -  February 17, 2016 - 6:04 am

        lack lol

  43. Irregardless -  September 22, 2015 - 9:27 pm

    How can one feel sorry for another without putting oneself in another’s shoes? How can one put oneself in another’s shoes without feeling sorry? In other words how can one have sympathy without feeling empathy? Conversely, how can one feel empathy without having sympathy? If S, then E. If E, then S. Therefore, S=E. This “distinction” is like the emperor’s new clothes.

    • Mimi -  September 23, 2015 - 2:36 pm

      Absolutely, Irregardless. LET’S GET LOGICAL WITH THE FACTS, something the writer of this article seemed to ignore: Both words share “pathy”, but, nevermind that. Let’s just skip it. PATHY:(Greek) Suffering/feeling. SYM: More than one/done with another. EM: Within/Only 1/you. Sympathy: Suffering/feeling done/felt alongside others. Empathy: Suffering/feeling done/felt expressed alone. EMPATH: n “Empath” is, huh? It is a parability to understand what someone else is feeling without being told. Yes, I made that word up, but, you understood me, right? A “Sympath”, by very definition, is kind of an oxymoron -a great example of how the rules don’t always apply.

      • jon -  February 25, 2016 - 6:38 pm

        You didn’t make that word up, an Empath is a real thing. People can be an empath.

    • Herb -  September 26, 2015 - 8:11 am

      Think about empathy as being more relate-able to the experience. “I can imagine/feel your pain, because i also shared in a similar experience” (Empathy). While, on the other hand, if you couldn’t comprehend, or understand the depths or level of emotions/feelings that one is going through, you may ‘sympathize’ as a sense of “wanting” to care, without being able to fully comprehend it.

      • Tiffany S. -  January 31, 2016 - 12:15 pm

        Hi I just wanted to tell you that i do agree w u completely! Besides, words can be tricked and confused…and also would prefer them explaining the definite in english grammar instead of them adding up in greek language or else, u know what I am saying? Actually I love to learn and we all will never stop learn….we are learning something new each and every single day with a big smile on our faces as well:) Besides I am profoundly deaf…no difference between hearing and deaf especially deaf just cant hear but capable of doing anything the same as hearing people as well smiling:) Thanks! Good day- Tiffany:-)

  44. Hi -  September 19, 2015 - 7:36 am


  45. Bill -  September 18, 2015 - 8:55 am

    Could not “empathy” or “empathize” suggest that the speaker has actually experienced the misfortune of another? It has been in this context that I have understood the word. It seems to me that the word “sympathy” could also be used to suggest putting oneself in the same shoes as another, whereas “empathy” suggests a sort of mutual bond in commiseration.

    • jh -  October 7, 2015 - 7:57 am

      No I believe empathy is being able to see a situation from someone else’s perspective regardless of whether you have actually been in a similar situation or not.

      sympathy is feeling sorry for

      empathy is feeling sorry with, feeling the same emotion that someone else is feeling, seeing the situation through another persons perspective.

      I see people all the time who have sympathy for someone without having empathy; but having empathy without sympathy might be a little more challenging.

  46. Susanne -  September 17, 2015 - 9:08 pm

    Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is when you feel someones pain.

    • Michael -  September 23, 2015 - 7:19 am

      yes so simple to summarize
      sympathy_ be helpful to someone
      empathy_ its shall be well.

  47. doggywoggyboy -  September 17, 2015 - 7:48 pm

    I say sympathy is people identify with emotions others have because have same emotions and don’t know why. Empathy is someone further down the track of learning from emotion and understands why. em is within is understanding within. The em path of empathy is true perception, the true self. Please spell em reversed.

    • Sympathy and empathy arise from an identical emotional root. they deviate from one another in that sympathy allows for distance to become involved in its expression while empathy expresses a merging -  February 17, 2016 - 3:09 pm

      Sympathy and empathy arise from an identical and more profound emotional root. they deviate from one another in that sympathy allows for distance to become involved in its expression while empathy expresses a merging.

      Thus, the “with” and “in”

      When I use the word Root, here, I do not mean linguistic roots, but emotional ones, many of which have not been named or classified

      • Rebeccah -  March 4, 2016 - 9:31 am

        I would agree with this.

  48. PAL -  September 17, 2015 - 9:59 am

    Good to know.

  49. Alvin -  September 16, 2015 - 1:08 am

    It might be advisable to examine quotations more carefully before using them. The statement attributed to Emily Blunt (a lovely and talented actress, by the way) may convey the idea of “empathy” adequately, but the first of its two sentences is poorly composed and itself ungrammatical. Three instances of the verb “to be” in one short phrase would be excessive, even if they were used appropriately, and these are not!

    • Mayor -  September 17, 2015 - 2:07 pm

      The sentence is grammatically correct, on second reading. What makes it seem inadequate, however, is the fact that the idea being expressed therein isn’t in totality and stems from a prior discussion.

      That’s after ignoring the obvious lack of punctuation marks in that sentence but that can be attributed to the transcription of her speech. See if this makes more sense:

      “I think that’s almost what it is, sometimes, if you sum up what acting is…”

      Just 2 commas. A lot of difference.

  50. Swaraj -  September 15, 2015 - 12:02 am

    Good description

  51. Jignesh Chokshi -  September 14, 2015 - 9:00 pm

    When sympathy is expressed, you simply join or acknowledge the emotion of other. when you sympathize, you actually take no action to change that emotion.

    When Empathy is expressed, you feel(imagine) internally other’s emotion. When you empathize, you understand the pain and suggest/take constructive action on your part to change the other’s state of mind or emotion.

    For managers or parents, sympathy has no meaning and empathy can do a lot.

    • Hammad -  September 17, 2015 - 5:23 pm

      I don’t think feeling empathy requires that you change a person’s emotion or state of mind. I think it just means being able to imagine yourself in a person’s situation as opposed to simply generally feeling sorry for them.

    • holly -  September 17, 2015 - 6:33 pm

      I was always confused about these “sympathy and empathy” but I understood now. Thank you.

    • Mimi -  September 23, 2015 - 1:53 pm

      Empathy is not an action word.

  52. Justin Bays -  September 13, 2015 - 4:04 pm

    This is very helpful to those that do not know how to distinguish between the two words and their meaning. Enjoy this service provide by the site.

  53. Trout -  September 13, 2015 - 9:47 am

    Sympathy = “Oh, that sucks.”
    Empathy = “I feel your pain.”

    • bob -  September 16, 2015 - 6:46 am


    • Claudia -  September 17, 2015 - 6:59 am

      The best possible example

    • Nawh -  September 17, 2015 - 9:50 am

      Well, that about sums it up! :-)

  54. Vagi Wan -  September 11, 2015 - 4:29 pm

    Now I understand the two words that make 2 different meanings

  55. Shailendra Dubey -  September 11, 2015 - 11:37 am

    I like the section of word fact. It makes me curious about different words..

  56. Rob -  September 11, 2015 - 11:20 am

    My question is what is the correct adjectival form for someone who is feeling empathy. I nearly always see “empathetic” used, obviously from the “sympathy –> sympathetic”analogue. But I’ve also seen the word “empathic” used, often in older and frankly, more trustowrthy sources. This form is even highlighted as in improper word by most spell-checking algorithms.

    • Other Rob -  September 16, 2015 - 4:33 am

      I would try and use the internet before asking dictionary dot com – a thread on a forum for the English language (conveniently named “englishforums”) described the distinction like this:

      emphatic=feel strongly about what you are saying.

      empathic=when you share feelings or opinions as it they were your own

      empathetic=nothing, not actually a word, added to dictionary due to frequent misuse.

      That being said, Google spellcheck tells me “empathic” is wrong, and Google is the final arbiter on many debates and issues. I would go with whatever the current spell-check tells you – most people are observant enough to know what they’re reading. If you feel the need to err on the side of caution, I would default to “empathetic”. It depends, really, on whether you’re writing for an academic audience or an audience that wouldn’t know the difference.

      • Mimi -  September 23, 2015 - 2:13 pm

        We use words to communicate. When you want to communicate, communicate. In any form, if the other person understands what you are saying or writing, you’ve done your job. If the other person who just understood you declares a more factual way of expressing yourself, your conversation will have taken a very rude turn. At that moment, you will have a choice. I’m not talking about professionals.

      • Theo Fandtoa -  February 21, 2016 - 6:02 pm

        First, one should not write “try and use.” The phrase, correctly rendered in written English, is “try to use.” To “try and do” is also incorrect. (If one should happen to have a fondness for the “and” construction of these phrases, any use of them should be limited to informal speech.)

        That said, while I agree with your position on “empathetic” versus “empathic”, I disagree with your assertion that the choice of which word to use is largely a matter of the writer’s presumed audience. It’s irrelevant whether your readers are unable to distinguish between one or another variant of a word.

        The thoughtful writer will always strive to select those words that best communicate the intended message. Word selection, if not based solely on the writer’s knowledge, should be informed by information newly acquired through consultation of authoritative sources (i.e. dictionaries, usage guides and style manuals). The selected words, the sentences in which those words are assembled, and the paragraphs that those sentences in turn comprise, should collectively represent the writer’s most complete understanding of the subject at hand, written to the best of that writer’s ability.

        Why is this important? Because, in addition to subject matter knowledge, a reader (in fact, any reader), also acquires knowledge of how this language should be written; its grammar, punctuation, mechanics and usage. The readers of your writing have the opportunity to take away with them new knowledge of all of these components. As such, the words that you use and how you use them is of more importance than many realize.

        • Mark Miglio -  February 23, 2016 - 7:40 am

          Where is non-formal writing not acceptable other than in legal documents? I see his use of “try and use the Internet” as an easy to understand, and a valid use of a short-cut/abbreviation/idiom for a phrasing like, ‘I would use or try to use the Internet’.

  57. BHAVNA -  September 11, 2015 - 4:00 am

    sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.

    • Mimi -  September 23, 2015 - 2:22 pm

      You MUST put yourself in the shoes of another to sympathize with them. If you cannot, you cannot feel sympathy. Think about it.

      • Kate -  February 8, 2016 - 4:59 pm

        You can deeply sympathise with a bereaved person but you cannot truly empathise without have experienced bereavement yourself. Someone who is sympathetic may still wonder why someone is still grieving a year or so later while still feeling a great deal of sympathy for the fact that they clearly are still grieving. Someone who empathises with that grief does not wonder, they know why.

        • TS -  March 3, 2016 - 7:05 pm

          That is so apt, Kate!

  58. jane -  September 10, 2015 - 5:06 pm

    i use sympathy WAY more than i use empathy. i think everybody does, right?

    • helena -  February 20, 2016 - 6:38 am

      not everyone!!!!!!!!!!!!

      • helena -  February 20, 2016 - 6:40 am

        about ……………….. that!

  59. shaun hancock -  September 10, 2015 - 10:56 am

    one on gangreen

  60. Thayer -  February 20, 2016 - 12:18 pm



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