What's the difference between 'sympathy' and 'empathy'?

Though the words appear in similar contexts, they have different meanings
What to Know

Sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone who is experiencing something difficult or painful. Empathy involves actively sharing in the person’s emotional experience.


Sympathy is a feeling of sincere concern for someone. Empathy involves stepping into that person's shoes to actively share in their emotional experience.

Sympathy vs. Empathy Difference

Sympathy and empathy both involve feelings of concern for someone, but empathy goes beyond a feeling of concern to include an active sharing in the suffering person’s emotional experience. To illustrate the distinction we present a sad dramatic scenario:

The oven’s failure when Harry the Dog was so close to perfecting his souffle recipe was terrible. Mabel the Cat could see that he was absolutely crestfallen, and offered her sympathy:

“Harry,” she said, “I’m so sorry about your oven, and at this particular moment.”

“I appreciate your sympathy, Mabel,” he replied. “But I wish you had some empathy—though you’re not a baker, so I understand it’s perhaps impossible.”

Mabel feels and expresses sympathy—that is, a feeling of sincere concern for Harry, who is having a difficult time. But Harry would really like Mabel to show some empathy—that is, to show that she actively shares in his emotional experience.

“Oh Harry,” said Mabel, “I’ve seen you mixing and stirring and baking late into the night for days now and I could sense how close you were to your goal. I was cheering your progress with you. I do, in fact, empathize with you.”

You’ll all be relieved to know that in this fictional world an oven repair is forthcoming.

‘Sym’ means “with”—so why is ‘empathy’ the word about feeling with someone?

We’re glad you asked. The answer is, well, complicated.

Sympathy and empathy share a common root: the Greek noun páthos, meaning “experience, misfortune, emotion, condition.” Sympathy, which has been in use since the 16th century, comes a Greek word that combined páthos with syn-/sym-, meaning “with; together with.”

Empathy was modeled on sympathy; it was coined in the early 20th century as a translation of the German word Einfühlung (“feeling-in” or “feeling into”), and was first applied in contexts of philosophy, aesthetics, and psychology—and specifically not in general contexts involving such quotidian things as disappointing ovens.

(Páthos also gave us the word pathos, which refers to the evocation of pity or compassion, especially in a work of art or literature.)

So why is it that sympathy comes from páthos plus something that means “with,” but empathy is the word the refers to an active sharing in someone else’s emotional experience?

Well, it’s because empathy stole that job from sympathy. That’s right: from the time when sympathy came on the scene in the 16th century all the way until the mid 20th century, sympathy was the go-to word for the active sharing in someone else’s emotional experience.

She literally wept with those who wept, while in tones of peculiar love, sincerity, and firmness, she lauded them for their noble daring, and freely expressed her entire sympathy with them, and likewise with all in the prison-house. — William Still, The Underground Railroad, 1872

As he mellowed into his plaintive history his tears dripped upon the lantern in his lap, and I cried, too, from sympathy.
— Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi, 1883

… when Mrs. Jennings considered that Marianne might probably be to her what Charlotte was to herself, her sympathy in her sufferings was very sincere.
—Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811

There was a caress in the soft winds; and the whole mood of the darkness, he thought, was one of sympathy for himself in his distress.
—Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage, 1895

When empathy was coined in the early 20th century, it referred to something quite different: the act of imagining one’s own ideas, feelings, or attitudes as fully inhabiting something one is observing, such as a work of art or a natural occurrence. Someone experiencing empathy in this sense was actively projecting their own feelings onto someone or something else—often experiencing a bodily sensation in response to a dance, a painting, a sunset—or a wrestling match.

Most of you have gone to a grunt and groan wrestling match. Get a picture of two fuzzy-chested, mobile-muscled mammoths tugging at each other. Haven't you found yourself helping—twisting and turning in your seat, trying to break the hold? That is empathy—you have by imagination become a wrestler and crawled into the ring.
— The Academic Department of the Infantry School, The Infantry School Mailing List, October 1946

This now-technical use persisted, and sympathy and empathy were contrasted accordingly:

The act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings of another is known as sympathy. Empathy, on the other hand, not only is an identification of sorts but also connotes an awareness of one's separateness from the observed. One of the most difficult tasks put upon man is reflective commitment to another's problem while maintaining his own identity.
Journal of the American Medical Association, 24 May 1958

A fuller account would clearly require empathy as well as sympathy—a leap of imagination into Leadbelly's racial conflicts that would almost certainly have been facilitated by more candid interviews with surviving African-American witnesses as well as the personal experience of racial bias.
—Robert Christgau, The New York Times Book Review, 17 Jan. 1993

Empathy has become a fad word for sympathy, though it was adopted expressly to mean something different from sympathy: 'intellectual insight into another's emotional state without sharing in it.'
—John H. Dirckx, The Language of Medicine (2nd Ed.), 1993

By the mid-20th century, however, empathy had developed the meaning we now know today: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.

But the letters show, as he repeats stories told to him by participants in battle, the kind of imaginative empathy that makes him fully deserve his reputation as a war poet.
—Monroe K. Spears, American Ambitions, 1987

Criticism, like fiction, was an act of empathy for Ray, putting yourself in the other guy's shoes.
—Jay McInerney, The New York Times Book Review, 6 Aug. 1989

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