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.