Empathy vs. Sympathy: What’s Difference?

Empathy is a word that refers to the ability to understand others’ feelings as if they were your own. It can also mean projecting your feelings onto another object, such as a work of art. Sympathy, meanwhile, refers to the ability to take part in another’s feelings, usually by feeling sad or sorrowful regarding their misfortune. Sympathy can also be used in reference to a person’s taste or opinion, for instance, saying you have sympathy for a particular political cause. 

Walt Whitman described his emotional reaction to seeing a person in pain in his 1855 poem “Song of Myself.” “I do not ask a wounded person how he feels,” Whitman stated. “I myself become the wounded person.” He continues on to say, “My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.”

What did Whitman mean when he said he would “become the wounded person?” Is this quote an example of empathy or sympathy? What is the difference between the two words? Does it really matter?

Although empathy and sympathy both come from Greek and have the same word ending, they aren’t synonyms, and they can’t be used interchangeably. 

What Is the Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy?

Interestingly, sympathy has been part of the English language much longer than empathy has. The first record of the use of empathy was in the nineteenth century, while sympathy had already been in use for 300 years at that point. Both words contain the ending -pathy, which comes from the Greek root word pathos, meaning “feelings” or “emotion” as well as “calamity” and “suffering.” (For the curious, here is a list of all Greek word roots!). Still, the two words have very different meanings. 

The Meaning of Sympathy

Sympathy comes from Greek and means “with feeling.” It’s often used to describe the way a person shares another’s feelings, particularly feelings of trouble or sorrow. This is why greeting cards created for mourning families are referred to as sympathy cards. (Speaking of which, you can hone your condolences writing skills here, should you need to.) The word sympathy can also mean the sense of harmony between people who share the same opinion, disposition, or taste. When a person feels sympathy toward an organization or a cause, they have feelings of support, loyalty, and approval. 

The Meaning of Empathy

Empathy comes from a Greek phrase that means “passion from feelings of emotion.” Generally, people think of empathy as a form of understanding in which you share the emotions, feelings, and experiences of another person. Empathy can also refer to the use of imagination to project your attitudes or feelings onto an object, such as a piece of art. 

Empathy and Sympathy in Sentences

Think back to the excerpt of “Song of Myself” from earlier in the article. Which quality was Whitman speaking of, empathy or sympathy? He was talking about empathy. When he becomes “the wounded person,” he is able to experience their suffering vicariously.

So, is it really possible to understand how someone else feels? In reality, most people have to be okay with the limitations of sympathy. In other words, they’re only able to experience the feeling of intellectual or emotional accord with another, or the quality of caring about someone else’s misfortune. A quote from Neil deGrasse Tyson says that humans aren’t as good at empathy as we should be. He suggested that “maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy.” He encouraged others to imagine a world in which empathy was taught in schools. 

Here are a few examples of sympathy and empathy in sentences:

  • The woman felt truly disturbed by the sympathy cards sent to her by real estate agents. She felt they were quick to take advantage of her mother’s death as an opportunity to sell her now-empty house, using sympathy as a guise for personal gain.
  • My sympathy for him was fairly limited after the things he did.
  • When looking at empathy from an evolutionary standpoint, it appears to be a truly valuable impulse. In fact, empathy helps humans survive in groups.
  • Those who have higher levels of empathy learn to help others more quickly than those with lower levels of empathy.

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