Do you think empathy and sympathy mean the same thing? You’re not alone. They are easily confused.
Both words share the same Greek root word pathos meaning experience, suffering or emotion. They explain our reaction to the negative experiences of another person.
- Sympathy is our ability to share someone else’s feelings when they suffer a misfortune.
- Empathy means understanding another person’s feelings as if we were having them ourselves.
Let’s look at the difference between the two.
What Is Sympathy?
Sympathy is often used to describe sharing someone's emotional pain. You’ll find messages of sympathy inside condolence cards.
When you feel bad for someone, you’re feeling sympathy. You feel sad they are suffering a misfortune. These feelings can be towards an individual or a group.
You need not be familiar with the negative experience. You can feel sympathetic for a person whose house has burnt down, despite never having been in a similar situation.
Leaders often express their sympathy in the media for communities damaged by disaster, including:
- War and conflict, including terrorist attacks.
- Natural disasters such as flooding, wildfires, and extreme weather.
- The destruction of important artefacts and buildings.
- Deaths caused by accidents such as a bridge or building collapsing.
Sympathy is also used to describe feeling a shared opinion or taste, such as in politics or with charities. For example, you might have sympathy with a political party because of shared views on healthcare.
Examples of Sympathy
- I was sad to hear that Cathy’s husband died. She has my sympathy.
- We are sympathetic to the plight of children made orphans by the war.
- Brian has my sympathy. He lost his job last month.
- Our sympathies are with the families who lost loved ones when the building collapsed.
- We offered our sympathies to the people of France after Notre Dame burnt down.
What Is Empathy?
Have you heard of the expression ‘putting yourself in someone else’s shoes’? This idiom describes empathy. It is the ability to imagine yourself in the same situation as someone else. The opposite of empathy is a feeling of distance or apathy.
You could think you would act differently to the same situation, but you can understand why someone might feel the way they do. You might not share the same feelings yourself, although you often will.
Unlike sympathy, empathy requires shared experience, feeling, or emotion. It is impossible to feel empathy for a position you can’t relate to.
We normally express empathy in negative situations. You imagine how someone feels, even if those emotions have not been explicitly expressed. Empathy is also used to describe projecting our emotions and feelings, such as onto a piece of art or nature.
Examples of Empathy
- After losing my mum to cancer last year, I know how it feels to lose a loved one.
- I also had to change jobs without much time for a handover: it is a stressful experience.
- As I work from home, I can empathise with how lonely you feel when the kids have gone to school.
- I can imagine how frightening it must have been when the fire spread.
- I can empathise with the families who lost everything in a flood as I experienced the same thing when my house burnt down.
How to Create Sympathy and Empathy When Writing
Are you a writer? If you want to evoke strong feelings in your reader, empathy and sympathy are important emotions.
Both make engaging characters and a believable story. If someone feels sympathetic, there is often empathy there too. It is hard to feel sorrowful for someone if you have no shared experience.
Empathy with a character means the reader can imagine themselves in that situation but do not necessarily share the same feelings.
It can be hard to create empathy if you are writing about something outside your reader’s understanding. But you can focus on common experiences to evoke it. For example, your reader may never have been a broker on a stock exchange, but they will have experienced high-pressured times in their life when they had to make a snap decision. Focusing on this will evoke empathy as well as sympathy for their plight.
Sympathy is more emotional. You can focus on a sorrowful situation to engage the sympathy of your reader. It is a great way to make a character more likeable or to create a tragic hero.
Empathy vs Sympathy: Conclusion
It is easy to understand why people confuse sympathy and empathy. Both explain our reactions to the misfortunes of others. You will often find them together, and it is common to see them wrongly treated as synonyms.
A simple way to identify which one you are feeling is to look for any commonality with the feeling, situation, or experience. Can you imagine yourself in the same situation? This will show you whether you empathise. If you only feel sad for them, you’re feeling sympathetic. Both emotions can help you create a great piece of writing.