Empathy vs. Sympathy

SympathyNo one enjoys hearing bad news. The passing of a loved one, a terminal illness, and life-threatening moments can evoke strong emotions of sympathy or empathy. And as some of you experience these emotions, you  may ask yourself “Why am I buying sympathy cards? Should I buy empathy cards? Why isn’t there such a thing?” Well, let’s sit down and talk about these words for a bit, because really, I empathize with your confusion!


Empathy is when you can relate directly to what another person is feeling. In the above example, I say “I empathize with your confusion.” I can feel empathy because I was confused too. My emotions relate directly with yours. Now, when you’re discussing a sad or difficult situation, such as losing a loved one, you would use empathy if you have experienced the situation as well. For example, “When my friend lost her grandfather, I was empathetic because I had lost mine a few months before.” The person relates directly to that situation and what that person is feeling.


Sympathy, on the other hand, is a general feeling of sorrow. You may not relate directly to that person’s emotions, but you know he or she is going through a difficult time and you acknowledge that. While empathy can be a relatable emotion of any sort (like confusion, as I mentioned before), sympathy is only used for sorrow. For example, “I’m sorry for your loss. I’ve never lost a parent, but I sympathize with you and what you’re going through.” Note here, the speaker has not experienced this emotion but does feel pity for the person in question.

Final thoughts

I guess the reason there’s little to no empathy cards is because empathy can cover not only a large range of emotions, but you also need to actually have experienced that emotion. It’s so much easier to make sympathy cards, which just relate to sorrow. Remember, you can experience both sympathy and empathy at the same time, but empathy isn’t exclusive to pity or sorrow. Good luck!


So I received a lovely email from a concerned reader, and here is what it said:

The unabridged OED dictionary states that empathy is the intellectual apprehension of another’s plight. It does not necessarily entail experiencing, only understanding (which may be based on past experience).

Unfortunately, many abridged version tend to merge compassion, pity, sympathy and empathy.

For those of you who do not know, the OED is the Oxford English Dictionary–basically THE dictionary of all dictionaries. It is the ultimate go-to source for the history of words or exact definitions. It’s also absurdly expensive ($300 for an online subscription–per year!), so I do not readily have access to one.

Thank you, Edward, for this clarification!

Posted in Grammar Quick Fix.

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