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Empathy v/s Sympathy : The Difference & an Insight Into Both of the Terms

Empathy and Sympathy are two words often linked but they have slightly different meanings. People frequently confuse these words with one another because of their similar pronunciation. Empathy and Sympathy are usually conducted to describe emotions.

Lets learn about these two words and their differences:

What is Empathy?


Empathy is a psychological term used to describe the ability to understand and feel what other people are feeling. To show empathy means that you perceive and feel things from someone else’s point of view, by putting yourself in their position. You exactly feel the same thing someone else is going through.

Ex: I feel empathy for Raina. I know how painful it is to lose your best friend.

  • You feel empathy because you might once have had the same experiences.

  • You see things from someone else’s perspective and understand how they feel in the situation.

  • You put yourself in their shoes, as if you are having the same feeling.

  • For example, if someone has broken their leg you feel empathy for them because you once broke your leg. You clearly know the feeling of that person.


What is Sympathy?


Sympathy is used to describe the ability to share the feelings/emotions of another person with yourself. To feel sympathy means that you take part in someone else’s feelings. It is when you feel bad or sorry for someone. Sympathy also means to agree with someone’s opinion.

Ex: I express my sympathy to Raina. I feel bad for her loss.

  • You feel sympathy to express shared emotions.

  • It is used to show pity, sorrow or compassion.

  • Sympathy is commonly used to feel sorry for someone else’s situations, even if you never experienced it.

  • For example, you have sympathy for those people affected by the flood, but you never experienced floods. So you feel sympathy for them.


Difference between Empathy and Sympathy:


How people confuse them for the same thing:


People often confuse between Empathy and Sympathy, sometimes for the same thing and sometimes interchangeably. Although both of the words are related to feeling or describing emotions. Both words have “pathy” and that’s what makes them sound similar. There are slight differences between these two words, the differences are explained below.


The difference explained:


A simple way to understand the difference between Empathy and Sympathy lies in the origin of these two words.

The two words contain “pathy” which is derived from Greek word “Pathos”, that means passion, suffering, feeling or experience.

Empathy in Greek is “Empatheia” which means physical affection or passion. In Greek, it means excess of personal emotion or passion directed towards others. While in English, it is used to describe the emotional identification with someone and projecting one’s emotions into yourself.

On the other hand, Sympathy comes from Greek prefix “syn”, that means with or together. It is used both in Greek and English language to express feelings as compassion.


“Pathy” comes from “Pathos

Greek word “Em”= in (feeling “in” other’s emotions)

Sym”= with (feeling “with” other’s emotions)

Therefore, Empathy means feeling in others emotions, by putting yourself in other’s position. And Sympathy means feeling with other’s emotions, by not putting yourself in other’s position, not feeling what they feel.

  • Sympathy is feeling on the surface level, feeling pity or sorry for someone. Using words of support/comfort for the hardship someone is facing and then you go on with your day. You don’t necessarily feel their emotion.

  • Empathy is trying to understand in depth what others are feeling, trying to imagine what others must be going through (their insecurities, fear, anger or sadness) and feeling what they are possibly feeling.

How and when to use each words:


Let’s take a situation:

“Rosie fell from the stairs and broke her leg”


If you use Empathy, you can say- “I feel empathy for Rosie” or “I empathize with Rosie”. This means you are feeling that person’s emotion, because you might know the pain of breaking a leg.


To show Sympathy, you can say- “I feel sympathy for Rosie” or “I sympathize with Rosie”. This means you understand that person’s pain of breaking a leg, but you cannot relate to their emotion because you never broke your leg.


Let's have another example:

“My friend lost her husband today, the doctors could not save him”.


For Empathy, you may say “I feel empathy for my friend, I know how sorrowful it is to lose a loved one” or “I feel the pain of my friend, I lost my loved one too”. By using it this way, you are clearly describing that you understand and feel the other person’s emotion as if it is your own.


For Sympathy or to show sympathy, you can say “I sympathize with my friend, she must be very sad” or “I express my sympathy to my friend, I feel sorry for her loss”. By saying it this way, you are indicating a shared feeling with your friend. You may have not experienced the same but you want to share compassion to your friend for their misfortune.




- By Shweta Ahamad, Content Writer at Letters to Strangers + India



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