Empathy “With” or Empathy “For”?
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.
Subscribe to Daily Writing Tips and get a free eBook!
- Our weekly newsletter is free (one email per week, on Tuesdays)
- You will improve your English, guaranteed.
- Get our "100 Writing Mistakes to Avoid" eBook free.