Empathy “With” or Empathy “For”?

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A reader asks if one feels empathy for a person, or with a person.

Plenty of examples can be found of both for and with used to follow empathy and its verb empathize:

…there were things in it I could empathize with…

Browns coach Eric Mangini has empathy for Mike Brown

How can I empathize with the other person?

Narcissists do not express empathy for those who are close to them

Promoting Empathy With Your Teen

…even rather young children are capable of showing empathy with the pain of others

However, because of the nature of empathy, I think that with is to be preferred over for. The preposition for indicates a certain distancing that with does not. For example, when we feel pity for someone, we see the other as not like ourselves. When we feel empathy, we see ourselves mirrored in the other person.

Four words commonly used for talking about feelings of caring are pity, compassion, sympathy, and empathy Pity and compassion refer to more distanced feelings than sympathy and empathy.

pity: Tenderness and concern aroused by the suffering, distress, or misfortune of another

compassion: The feeling or emotion, when a person is moved by the suffering or distress of another, and by the desire to relieve it

sympathy: The quality or state of being thus affected by the suffering or sorrow of another

empathy: The power of projecting one’s personality into (and so fully comprehending) the object of contemplation.

Although these words are often used interchangeably, it’s useful to think of them as referring to different kinds or degrees of caring.

Pity represents the most remote connection with one’s fellow man. Pity is the feeling that most of us experience when we see the photo of a starving child or a news clip showing an oil-covered pelican. We are moved momentarily, but other impressions quickly crowd in to dissipate the feeling.

Compassion is a step up from pity. Compassion prompts us to send money or to volunteer at the food bank. Compassion makes us try to rescue the distressed sea bird.

With both pity and compassion, we see the object of our feelings at a certain remove from ourselves. We recognize the pain or distress of the other person’s situation, but we don’t feel it in a personal way.

With sympathy and empathy, we are on a different level of feeling.

When we sympathize, we have some experience of our own as a referent. We see the other person as an equal, someone like ourselves.

Empathy takes sympathy to a still stronger depth of feeling. With empathy we are able to imagine ourselves in the other person’s situation.

Generally speaking, one sympathizes and empathizes with, but has pity and compassion for.

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7 thoughts on “Empathy “With” or Empathy “For”?”

  1. THANK YOU for a clear and concise guide to the differences in connotation. The mistake I see most often when working with intermediate writers who’ve gotten past the grammar basics is word misuse. The connotation of words is as important as their denotation, as important as the shades of color are to a homeowner painting their rooms. Subtle differences can be large!

    Rejoicing in the day,

  2. Another way to look at those options of adverbs (and chose between them) is to split a word like “sympathy” in its greek parts (i.e. adverb “syn”: together, at the same time, with etc. + noun “pathos”: experience, feel, emotion etc.) and maybe its components might induce us to use “with” when talking about something that we “feel” with (not for) two or more people or things (also enforcing the “syn” effect…).

    Just to end this note, comPASSion, emPATHy and symPATHy share the same root, the first one (PASS-) through latin “patior”. Etymologically (but not in daily use), the first (“compassion”) and third (“sympathy”) words may be seen as the same.

  3. On the “with/for” question. . .isn’t it more that when using the verb “to empathize” the preposition is “with” (just as it is when using the verb “to sympathize”) but when using the noun “empathy” the preposition should be “for” (just as it is when using the noun “sympathy”)? Your point about the distance implied in “for” is interesting, and I do understand that they two words are distinct. . .but to my ear “to have empathy with” sounds off.

  4. It might be of use to mention the Spanish use of the two words. ‘Empatía con’ (= with) is much more frequent than ’empatía por’ (= for), and I think it is quite logically so, given the Greek origin of the word. Of course, languages develop their own ways of saying things, nevertheless, my vote goes to “empathy with”.

  5. Thank-you, Maeve, for your terrific article; it answered the question I had gone to Google with and it also gave me a way of thinking about the *similarity* and *differences* between “pity”, “compassion”, “sympathy” and “empathy”. This is very beneficial to me because writing is my passion and foremost hobby and, who knows, if other people find that they like my writing, then it might even become a career to pursue! Hmmm….🤔
    Oh, and to top it all off, I now have a great new website to subscribe to; thank-you Maeve and thank-you Daily Writing Tips!!

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