Sympathy vs. Empathy – How to Distinguish Them

08.07.23 Commonly confused words Time to read: 5min

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When composing an academic paper, you might encounter commonly confused words. These instances could negatively affect your paper because academic writing demands clear and precise language. The words “sympathy” and “empathy” are often mistaken for each other because of their similar spelling and related meanings. However, they cannot be used interchangeably. Learn more about the dissimilarities between “sympathy” and “empathy”.

Definition of “sympathy vs. empathy”

While “sympathy” and “empathy” may seem similar in meaning, they are often confused in academic writing. These words describe our emotional responses to others’ feelings or experiences, but they have distinct differences in the type and depth of emotional connection they represent.

Sympathy

… is a noun and means one understands that somaeone is going through a difficult time, and one feels compassion or concern for them.

Empathy

… is a noun and refers to the ability to put oneself in another person’s place, to understand their feelings, thoughts, and experiences from their perspective.

In essence, “sympathy” is feeling for somaeone, while “empathy” is feeling with somaeone. These differences in the degree of emotional involvement and perspective-taking are the keys to differentiating between the definitions of these two terms.

Using the word “sympathy”

The word “sympathy” can take on a variety of word forms and be used in different ways, as will be outlined in the following paragraph.

“Sympathy” as a noun

The word “sympathy” usually operates as a noun and as such, it operates within sentences as the subject, object, or complement of a sentence. Here are some examples of how it can be used:

Examples

  • Sympathy is a powerful tool for connecting with others. (Subject)
  • I have deep sympathy for his situation. (Object)
  • What she needed most was sympathy. (Complement)

Tip for using “sympathy” correctly

Use “sympathy” when you want to express that you understand somaeone’s suffering and feel for them, but do not necessarily share their emotions. Synonyms for sympathy compile of “compassion”, “pity”, “condolence”, “understanding”, and many more.

Examples

Synonyms Examples
Compassion Her heart was filled with sympathy for the starving children in Africa.
Her heart was filled with compassion for the starving children in Africa.
Condolence They sent a letter of sympathy to the family of the deceased.
They sent a letter of condolence to the family of the deceased.
Pity He felt sympathy for his friend who had just lost his job.
He felt pity for his friend who had just lost his job.
Understanding He showed sympathy when she arrived late.
He showed understanding when she arrived late.

Using the word “empathy”

The word “empathy” can be used in different ways depending on the context, as outlined in the following.

“Empathy” as a noun

The word “empathy” is a noun, and like other nouns, it can operate as the subject, object, or complement within a sentence. Let’s look at how it can be used:

Examples

  • Empathy is crucial for effective communication. (Subject)
  • He showed great empathy for her situation. (Object)
  • What you need in this situation is empathy. (Complement)

Tip for using “empathy” correctly

Use “empathy” when you want to express that you not only understand somaeone’s situation, but also share their feelings or can put yourself in their shoes. Be aware that “empathy” goes beyond mere sympathy, as it involves experiencing the feelings of others, not just understanding or pitying their situation. Synonyms for empathy are “compassion”, “commiseration”, “rapport”, and “sensitivity”.

Examples

Synonyms Examples
Compassion Her empathy for homeless animals led her to volunteer at a shelter.
Her compassion for homeless animals led her to volunteer at a shelter.
Commiseration His sincere empathy for her loss made her feel less alone.
His sincere commiseration for her loss made her feel less alone.
Rapport She quickly established a strong empathy with her new students.
She quickly established a strong rapport with her new students.
Sensitivity His empathy made it easier for her to share her problems.
His sensitivity made it easier for her to share her problems.

Test yourself!

Practice sheet

Test your understanding of distinguishing “sympathy” from “empathy” by filling in the blank spaces in the 10 sentences. You can then find the correct answers in the second tab to cheque if you understood the difference between the two words.

  1. She was unable to fully understand his struggle, but she still felt ________ for him.
  2. After experiencing a similar loss, he felt deep ________ for his friend.
  3. Her ________ for her neighbour’s hardship compelled her to cook them a meal.
  4. As a counsellor, he knows the importance of ________ when dealing with clients’ issues.
  5. Her ________ was apparent as she comforted the grieving widow.
  6. Despite never having been in a similar situation, he felt ________ for her.
  7. He experienced strong ________ for the character in the novel who was going through a tough time.
  8. Her ________ for the homeless inspired her to start a donation drive.
  9. Having been bullied in high school, he felt deep ________ for the new student.
  10. She couldn’t understand his grief, but she showed ________ when he spoke about his mother’s death.
  1. She was unable to fully understand his struggle, but she still felt sympathy for him.
  2. After experiencing a similar loss, he felt deep empathy for his friend.
  3. Her sympathy for her neighbour’s hardship compelled her to cook them a meal.
  4. As a counsellor, he knows the importance of empathy when dealing with clients’ issues.
  5. Her sympathy was apparent as she comforted the grieving widow.
  6. Despite never having been in a similar situation, he felt sympathy for her.
  7. He experienced strong empathy for the character in the novel who was going through a tough time.
  8. Her sympathy for the homeless inspired her to start a donation drive.
  9. Having been bullied in high school, he felt deep empathy for the new student.
  10. She couldn’t understand his grief, but she showed sympathy when he spoke about his mother’s death.
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FAQs

The main difference lies in the depth of emotional connection and perspective-taking. Sympathy involves acknowledging and feeling for somaeone’s hardship, whereas empathy involves personally experiencing and understanding their emotions from their perspective.

“S” and “E” sound:

You can associate the letter “S” in “sympathy” with the idea of “separate.” Sympathy often involves a sense of separation or distance, as you acknowledge and feel for somaeone’s situation without fully experiencing their emotions. On the other hand, the letter “E” in “empathy” can represent “emotional connection.” Empathy involves a deeper emotional connection where you share and understand somaeone else’s feelings.

Let’s say a friend is going through a difficult breakup.

Sympathy would involve acknowledging their pain and expressing support, saying things like:

  • “I’m sorry you’re going through this.”

Empathy would go further by genuinely understanding and sharing their emotions, saying something like:

  • “I can imagine how heartbroken you must be. I’ve been through a similar experience, and it was tough.”

Sympathy is often associated with feelings of pity or sorrow for somaeone else’s misfortune or hardship. When we sympathize, we understand that somaeone is going through a difficult time, and we feel compassion or concern for them. However, sympathy doesn’t necessarily involve understanding the person’s emotional state from their perspective. It maintains a level of emotional distance, where we acknowledge and feel for the person’s situation, but we do not necessarily share in their emotions.

Empathy is a deeper, more involved emotional response. It refers to our ability to put ourselves in another person’s place, and to understand their feelings, thoughts, and experiences from their perspective. Empathy requires more than just recognising another’s difficulty; it involves vicariously experiencing their emotions as if they were our own. This ability to “step into somaeone else’s shoes” fosters a stronger, more personal connection, enabling more effective emotional support and understanding.