Empathize vs. Sympathize

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A reader says,

I’ve always been confused on how to use [the words empathize and sympathize] in proper context.

For about 300 years, English speakers didn’t have to choose between sympathize and empathize to express the idea of sharing another’s feelings. Empathize hadn’t been invented yet.

The first OED example of sympathize in the sense of “to share the feelings of another” is dated 1607; the first use of empathize with this meaning dates from 1916.
However, the noun empathy was introduced in 1895 by a psychologist to describe “a physical property of the nervous system analogous to electrical capacitance, believed to be correlated with feeling.”

This definition of empathy did not survive, but the word has found a lasting place in the vocabulary of psychology as the English equivalent of German Einfühlung: “sympathetic understanding.” This kind of empathy is “the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s feelings and experience.”

Before the psychological term empathize entered the general vocabulary, speakers did just fine with sympathize when they wished to speak of feeling the joy or pain of others.

Now that we have a second word for the same concept, empathize has come to denote a stronger, more personal sense of fellow feeling than sympathize.

For example, I may sympathize with the fire victim who has lost her home and all of her possessions, but I cannot empathize with her because, mercifully, I have not experienced that trauma in my own life.

On the other hand, because I had to spend a day and a night in a Red Cross emergency shelter during an ice storm, I can empathize with people who must live in shelters for extended periods.

The great gift of literature is that it enables readers to empathize with a wide variety of fellow creatures. They don’t even have to be human. When I read Black Beauty, I empathized with a horse.

Sympathy and empathy are equally beautiful human characteristics. Sympathize is appropriate in most contexts. Empathizeis best suited to situations that you have experienced yourself, either in the real world or through the power of literature.

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7 thoughts on “Empathize vs. Sympathize”

  1. As a fascinated linguist, writer, and Marriage and Family Therapy graduate student, I follow you dogmatically [my choice]. Your advice never ceases to coincide with my own comprehension of the English language. The majority of the time, I agree with your instruction and guidance.

    This post, however set me within a quandary. I am sincerely confused.

    You wrote:

    “Sympathize is appropriate in most contexts. Empathize is best suited to situations that you have experienced yourself, either in the real world or through the power of literature.”

    I have always understood ‘sympathize’ to mean having experienced the form of suffering that another experiences. I come to this definition by the root word ‘sym-‘ as to imply ‘symmetry, mirroring’.

    EX: My parents died after I became an adult. I can sympathize with adults who have lost their parents.

    To ’empathize’ is to relate personal experience to the experience of another. I come by this from the root word ’emp-‘ meaning to take or assume. I can empathize with a CHILD who has lost his parent in childhood, but since my parents died when I was an ADULT, I cannot sympathize with the child – but I can empathize with his suffering.

    My penchant for correct language usage and the dissonance I feel reading your explanation could use your wise counsel.

    I do not agree with your definition: “Empathize is best suited to situations that you have experienced yourself, either in the real world or through the power of literature.”

    I await your response. Thank you!

  2. I’m familiar with this distinction, but have always thought it ought to be the other way around. “Sym-” means together or with, so shouldn’t “sympathy” mean “feeling with someone what he or she has felt”? “Em-” means to put on or to furnish with, so shouldn’t “empathy” mean “putting on a feeling [that one may not necessarily have inherently]”? I understand that the definitions are set; I’m just venting a dissatisfaction. 🙂

  3. A have to agree with Maeve that “empathize” is best applied to things that you have actually experienced yourself, and sympathize to more general things. Empathy has a stronger connotation of experience– I can sympathize with the plight of a man on death row but I can’t empathize with him.

    This also raised (but does NOT beg– let’s be clear on that one!), “problem” of the adjectival form of empathy– empathetic or empathic. My spell-checker just red-lined empathic but I would send its programmer to the unemployment office. All the sources I can find state at the least that the 2 are interchangeable, and the more discerning ones recognize that empathic is the older, traditional form while empathetic is a much newer “coinage”. I’d bet my own coinage that “empathetic” is a miscreation born of a faulty correlation with sympathetic that is today another very big portion of the empathy/sympathy confusion. Red-lining either empathic or empathetic seems problematic nowadays, but actually preferring the latter is indefensible.

  4. I always thought to sympathize with somebody is to feel the moment of pain and tribulations that person is going through. It’s like mentally sharing the pain or the situation as if one is involved.
    On the other hand, to empathize is to feel for the victim or situation with a detached mindset. Examples, doctors are trained to be empathetic to to patients or situations. If they are sympathetic, they become emotionally involved which could hinder their ability to help effectively. But if they are empathetic their emotions do not cloud their judgments..
    I may be wrong with my definitions. Please let me know your thoughts. Email me.

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