Professional Style

Empathy vs. Sympathy

November 2012
Spot the Error

Although he has never been victimized by nature’s fury, Tom felt tremendous empathy for those who suffered from Hurricane Sandy. That’s why he donated $5,000 to the relief effort.

Did you ever experience sadness after a friend’s pet died? Did you ever feel excited and giddy when a sibling purchased a new car? Have you ever been immobilized by fear and anxiety after a loved one was diagnosed with cancer? If so, even if for the briefest moment, you’ve experienced empathy. Empathy is the sharing of another’s emotions—positive or negative. You are able to share those emotions because either you’ve been in that situation yourself or you have the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

In the “hurricane” sentence above, Tom is not personally feeling the loss and helplessness of the victims (as one would experience with empathy). Instead, he has a feeling of compassion and a desire to help and protect those people—that’s sympathy.

Here’s an example of proper usage:

Having a preschooler, a toddler, and an infant in the house, Dina empathizes with young mothers who feel overwhelmed; however, she has no sympathy for mothers who take that frustration out on their children.

Still confused? I empathize AND sympathize. Maybe this will help. If someone else’s experience makes you want to reach out and hug him or her, that’s sympathy. If that same experience makes you want to hug yourself, that’s empathy.

~ Thank you, Jane B., for your topic suggestion.

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