Grammar 12 min read

Sympathy vs. Empathy: the Easiest way to Know the Difference

Main Sympathy vs. Empathy Takeaways

  • Empathy and sympathy are similar but mean different things.
  • Both words come from the Greek root “pathos,” meaning feeling or suffering. The difference between these words is how a person feels or suffers.
  • When you think of empathy, think of your feelings on an equal level with someone else’s.
  • When you think of sympathy, think of your feelings on an unequal level with someone else’s.
  • Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This allows you to understand the feelings of others as if they were yours.
  • Sympathy indicates feeling bad for someone even if you can’t understand what they’re going through. This allows you to recognize the feelings of others but not understand them as if they were yours.
  • Sympathy can exist without empathy when someone feels bad for someone but hasn’t experienced the same situation.
  • You can have empathy without sympathy, but that can lead to manipulation or lack of concern.
  • Empathy is a stronger, deeper emotion vs. sympathy.
  • There are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate.
Alana is nuts if she doesn’t get her daily dose of caffeine. As a coffee lover, I can sympathize.
Alana is nuts if she doesn’t get her daily dose of caffeine. As a coffee lover, I can empathize.
Everyone loved Donna’s wife, and many people reached out after the memorial with messages of sympathy.
Two panels. Panel on the left labeled empathy shows two crying men. One of the men is empathizing with his friend, saying: I've been there. Panel on the right shows two men as well. One of this is crying while the other one has a sympathetic look on his face and is saying: I feel so bad for you.
While often used interchangeably, empathy and sympathy don’t mean the same thing.

What is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

The difference between sympathy and empathy is a slight but important one. Both sympathy and empathy come from the Greek word “pathos,” which means suffering or feeling. As such, both refer to being able to take part in another’s feelings. With sympathy, the relationship between your feelings and another’s isn’t equal. You might feel sorrow for someone, but you don’t personally understanding their feelings or haven’t had the same experience. However, with empathy, the relationship is equal. You understand another’s feelings as if they were yours.

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It was easy for me to feel empathy for Mrs. Dell since I’d been in the exact same situation.
My daughter has the worst acne. I didn’t have the same issue as a teenager and it’s hard to empathize.
I’m sorry for your loss. You have my sympathy.
Benito heard that his friend’s grandmother had Alzheimer’s and immediately felt a pang of sympathy.
It’s important to note that sympathy is almost exclusively associated with negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear, and disappointment.

Empathy involves all those bummer feelings too, but there is also a thing called positive empathy. This concept is newer and largely undefined but can mean understanding and sharing in more positive emotions like joy and happiness.

Phrases That Show You Empathize With Someone:

  • I’ve felt that way before
  • I know exactly what you mean
  • I totally get you
  • I’ve been there
  • I know exactly how you feel
  • I know from experience
  • The same thing happened to me
  • I had a similar experience
  • I know what you’re going through
  • I feel you

Phrases That Show You Sympathize With Someone:

  • I’m so sorry
  • I’m sorry for your loss
  • I can’t imagine what you must be going through
  • That’s so terrible
  • I’m sorry this happened to you
  • I’m sorry that you feel this way
  • I really feel bad for you
  • I’m sorry for you
  • You have my sympathy

Quick Recap:

  • Empathy means you understand what someone else is going through, often feeling it like your own experience.
  • Sympathy means you feel bad for what someone else is feeling, but you can’t personally identify with the experience.

Sympathy vs. Empathy: How to Remember the Difference

Here are three easy ways to help you remember the difference between sympathy and empathy:

Trick #1: Look at the Prefix

On one hand, the prefix em– means “to cause” or “to put into.” In this way, you can think of empathy as causing you to put yourself into someone else’s shoes.

On the other hand, the prefix sym- comes from the ancient Greek word for “together”. In this way, you can think of sympathy as feeling something together, but without putting yourself into the person’s shoes.

An image showing three women. Woman on the left is teary-eyed and is handling a handkerchief to the woman in the middle who's crying. She's saying I know exactly how you feel. Woman on the right is tapping the crying woman on the shoulder. She has a sympathetic look on her face and is saying: I'm so sorry.
Empathy refers to your ability to understand someone else’s feelings like you’re experiencing them, too. On the other hand, sympathy is when you feel bad for someone even if you don’t understand what that person is experiencing.

Trick #2: Look at Which Letter Comes First in the Alphabet

The letter ‘e’ comes before the letter ‘s’ in the English language alphabet.

For this reason, assign the number 1 to the word empathy. Similarly, assign the number 2 to sympathy.

Remember that empathizing with someone is like sharing an experience with them. In this way, your feelings and the other person’s feelings are one and the same.

On the other hand, you can remember that sympathizing with someone is not a shared experience. There is a sense of togetherness in that you recognize another’s feelings, but there is a division between your feelings and the other person’s. In this way, your feelings are two separate experiences.

Trick #3: Equality Test

Associate Sympathy With an Unequal Relationship

When you sympathize with someone, you recognize that the person feels a certain way, but you don’t truly understand what they are going through.

For example, you may hurt for someone who has lost their child, but because you’ve never experienced that loss you can’t truly understand the pain.

As a result, sympathy isn’t a shared experience. You feel an emotion about the way someone else feels instead of sharing in the same emotion. Therefore, sympathy creates an unequal relationship

Associate Empathy With an Equal Relationship

When you empathize with someone, you do more than just recognize an emotion in someone else; you feel that emotion as if it were your own.

For instance, if your friend fails the same exam you failed last semester, you might be empathetic.

Therefore, empathy is a shared experience. Quite often, empathetic bonds like friendship are born out of shared experiences. Think of it as having the same experience as someone else but at a different time.

What is a Good Example of Empathy?

A good example of empathy is to imagine that you’re seated on a packed bus and you see a stranger board. The stranger has a broken leg and crutches. You feel sorry for the stranger’s pain and hardship, so you sympathize. But, you don’t stop there. The stranger reminds you of breaking your leg as a kid. You remember how difficult it was to take the bus with your belongings and crutches, so you also empathize with this stranger. You offer your seat to the hurt stranger and help him get situated. These are choices born out of empathy.

A woman balancing two different objects on her two hands. To the left, she's holding a cube. On the right, she's holding a sphere. Text reads: Sympathy is feeling pity without truly understanding another's feelings. Empathy is putting yourself in another person's shoes.
Sympathy and empathy don’t always go hand and hand. Meaning, you can feel empathy without feeling any sympathy for someone, and vice versa.

There are so many wonderful examples of empathy in the world. Though they may stem from loss, sadness, anger, or depression, empathetic acts and feelings are what makes the world go round.

History of Empathy and Sympathy

Part of the confusion stems from the shared root. Sympathy showed up in our shared lexicon first, likely in the 1500s. Back then, it meant to agree or be in harmony with other things or people. Obviously, the definition of sympathy has evolved a bit, but more on that in a second.

Empathy is much newer, first appearing in the late 1800s. At that time, it was primarily a psychological term. People who empathized were projecting their own feelings onto someone or something else. Again, not the same definition we use today.

Today, empathy is used to describe our ability to understand other’s feelings like we were experiencing them ourselves. Usually, this means we’ve experienced the same feelings or situation before. The second party identifies with and feels similar to the first.

With sympathy, you feel bad for someone else without necessarily understanding what they’re going through.

What are the 3 Types of Empathy?

According to experts, there are three types of empathy. Cognitive empathy deals with understanding how someone else may be thinking. Cognitive empathy is useful in everyday interpersonal communication but may be especially powerful in professional scenarios. Emotional empathy is all about feelings. If someone is grieving and you can almost physically feel their sorrow, that’s emotional empathy. Finally, there is compassionate empathy. This type of empathy, also known as empathic concern, is so moving it can drive someone to action. Not only do compassionate empathizers understand others’ feelings, but they also want to help.

3 Types of Empathy:

  1. Cognitive: How is someone else thinking?
  2. Emotional: How is someone else feeling?
  3. Compassionate: How can I help someone else?

Is Empathy or Sympathy Better?

Empathy is a stronger emotion, but that doesn’t automatically make it better than sympathy. The question is really which is better for a given situation. Sympathy recognizes another person’s suffering, but it stops there. Empathy goes further by sharing in another’s experience. The ability to feel someone’s pain, disappointment, and fear is intense. Sympathy is just as important even though it’s less intense.

Empaths are people so hypersensitive to the emotions of others that they even take on strangers’ pain and feel it as their own.

Sympathy or empathy isn’t a choice, it simply depends on your experiences.

For example, if you haven’t had the same experience as someone else, you can sympathize. Conversely, if you have had the same experience or are able to put yourself in the person’s shoes, you can empathize.

Finding ways to understand the pain of others is important. Drawing on your own experiences makes those feelings even more potent. In writing, inspiring empathy in your readers strengthens your text and makes your characters and scenarios more relatable.

Can You Have Empathy Without Sympathy?

You can have empathy without sympathy, but those feelings can have some negative consequences. Ideally, empathy and sympathy go hand in hand. If you have empathy without sympathy, that could mean you understand someone’s pain but don’t particularly care that they’re suffering. A manipulative person could empathize with a friend’s loss but then use that grief for nefarious purposes. If the manipulator also had sympathy, they’d be less likely to lack compassion.

Bob lost his job last year, so he knew exactly how to take advantage of his friend’s recent layoff instead of sympathizing with his plight.
I felt empathy for her struggle with addiction, but my own drug history made me question how serious she was about getting better.
While Taron understood how her friend felt after being in a car accident, she struggled to sympathize. After all, she’d told her repeatedly to stop texting while driving.

Of course, there are exceptions this rule. Why? Feelings are complicated! Almost as complicated as grammar. ?

A man and a woman looking at each other, showing a deep understanding of one another's feelings.
There are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional, and compassionate empathy.

Can You Feel Sympathy Without Empathy?

In short: Absolutely. Sympathy and empathy don’t always coexist. If you feel sorry for someone who’s going through a rough patch but can’t fully understand their struggle, that’s sympathy. You may even want to be empathetic. But because you’re never had the same experience, you can only have sympathy. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s just the nature of the relationship between emotions and experiences. Sympathy vs. empathy isn’t always a battle.

Why is Sympathy a Bad Thing?

Whether or not sympathy is a terrible thing is up for debate. Most people who view sympathy as a negative believe that it could hurt the receiver more than the giver.

For instance, author and philosopher Criss Jami once wrote:

Like crying wolf, if you keep looking for sympathy as a justification for your actions, you will someday be left standing alone when you really need help.

Sometimes, sympathy could make someone abdicate responsibility for getting out of an unpleasant situation.

On the flip side, someone who gives too much sympathy could potentially endanger their own well-being. Spend too much time feeling bad for other people and you may find yourself acquiring a negative worldview.

Still, balance is essential. A total lack of sympathy can destroy relationships and make you seem like a very selfish person in the process.

More Sympathy vs. Empathy Examples

Here are examples of how to correctly use empathy and sympathy in a sentence:

Having broken her own leg years before, Sheila was empathetic, knowing exactly how her dad felt when he shattered his tibia while skiing.
He showed a total lack of emotion, indicating he was incapable of empathy or remorse.
Her empathy for her sister made her a very likable character.
I wanted to bond with her, but her hesitation to share her feelings made it impossible to have any empathy.
The cat was so wet and cold, it was hard not to sympathize with its plight.
The support group felt connected due to their shared experiences and mutual empathy.
I want to empathize with Joel’s plight, but he won’t take responsibility for his own actions or make any real changes.

The words empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably. Though these terms are commonly confused, they don’t mean the same thing. That’s our deep dive into sympathy vs. empathy and how you can best express your feelings while mastering grammar. Are you confident you know the difference?

Take This Quick Test About Sympathy vs. Empathy

Sympathy and Empathy Question #1

Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is FALSE. Empathy describes our ability to understand the feelings of others like we were experiencing them ourselves. Meanwhile, sympathy means feeling bad for someone else without necessarily understanding what they’re going through.

Empathy Question #2

Which of these is NOT a type of empathy?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is C. According to experts, there are three types of empathy — cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and compassionate empathy.

Empathy vs Sympathy Question #3

Which of these is associated with negative emotions?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. Sympathy is linked with emotions such as sadness, anxiety, fear, and disappointment.

Empathy and Sympathy Question #4

Which of these is a stronger emotion?
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Most people agree that empathy is a stronger emotion.

Sympathy vs Empathy Question #5

Complete this sentence. We got several ______ cards when the cat died.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is B. Sympathy means feeling bad for someone else without necessarily understanding what they’re going through.

Sympathy or Empathy Question #6

Complete this sentence. Jane’s sense of ________ makes her take tragedies personally.
Correct! Oops! That's incorrect.

The answer is A. Empathy describes our ability to understand the feelings of others like we were experiencing them ourselves.

Sympathy vs Empathy Quiz Result
Expert!

Expert!

Not bad!

Not bad!

Almost got it! Review the article and try again.

Almost got it! Review the article and try again.

How Well do you Know the Difference Between Sympathy vs. Empathy?

Read More: ; Semicolon Tattoo: Because Your Story Isn’t Over

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Krista heads up Marketing and Content Creation here at INK. From Linguistics and History to puns and memes, she's interested in the systems we create to share our ideas with each other.

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