Empathy Vs. Sympathy

Know The Difference Series.


In today’s Know The Difference Series, let’s look at the difference between two affective qualities that we exhibit—empathy and sympathy. They are paronymous words but refer to quite distinct qualities. 

Empathy Vs. Sympathy

Let me ask you this—are you an empathetic person or a sympathetic person? We actually exhibit both of these responses, but in different situations, we respond differently. Sometimes we have empathetic feelings for someone and sometimes we just have sympathy. The etymological difference between these two words is very interesting to note. The ‘pathy’ in both of them comes from the Greek word ‘pathos’, which means ‘feeling’. But the prefixes have interesting differences. The prefixes also come from Greek. The prefix ’em’ means ‘in’. So, empathy literally means to be ‘in feeling’. While the ‘sym’ derives from ‘sun’, and means ‘with’. So, sympathy literally means to be ‘with feeling’. Do you get the difference? Let me elaborate. 

Both of these are ‘feeling’. But, in one of them, you actually feel the other person, and in the other, you are simply being kind, but do not feel the other person. That is the critical difference. 

Take an example. The father of your friend has died, and your friend is grieving. Now, if you are a very close friend, you’ll possibly feel empathetic to your friend’s emotional plight. That is, you’ll actually be able to feel what your friend is feeling—the intensity and depth of his experience too. But if you are not that close, you’ll only show sympathy; that is, you’ll feel sorry for him, but you’ll not feel him. 

So, it depends on how emotionally close we are to someone. Accordingly, we’ll show empathy or sympathy. But empathy can also be a trait of your emotional being. People with the empathetic trait are generally very kind in most situations. They are helpful in nature and have a high degree of understandability. But a sympathetic person may not necessarily be helpful or generous in nature. They are less likely to do the extra bit for the other person. Empathetic people will go the extra mile and will get really involved with the other person. 

People don’t actually want sympathy. Everybody wants an empathetic response from others. We often say— ‘I don’t want your sympathy!’. But have you ever heard anyone say ‘I don’t want your empathy!’? Who doesn’t want empathetic understanding‽ After all, we all have this deep desire to connect with others. That’s why we seek love, we seek companionship! But empathetic people are less in number. Why this discrepancy? Is being empathetic hard? Does it cost us in any way? Well, being empathetic is not hard—it’s just a question of willingness. We lack that willingness, for whatever reasons. One of the reasons is, of course, our selfishness. We are not concerned about others. We are a self-obsessed species. You cannot be truly empathetic unless you show the willingness to keep yourself aside for the benefit of the other person. And that’s where it becomes difficult for us. So, yes, being empathetic has a cost to it. If you are not empathetic, it means, you are simply not willing to pay that cost, because it’s not about you! I think that’s the thought process behind. Anyway…

Last Words

Next time you show sympathy to someone, you should try to recognise the other person’s feelings. And as you do so, you’ll be an empathetic person. What’ll you get by being empathetic‽ The capability to experience other people’s experiences. Isn’t that a great thing? I think it’s a superpower!

P.S: Here is the Part-1 of the Know The Difference Series. Check it out if you haven't already read. 

Also tell me if there is any thing you want to be clear about. You can put your suggestions in the comments. 
Thank you.
Image Credit: The Washington Post

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