The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy

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I recently had a discussion with one of my SHIFT colleagues about sympathy and empathy. We often conflate the meaning of these two words, but in practice, they separate (but related) concepts.

Sympathy translates from Greek as “with feeling”.

etymology of sympathy.png

Empathy translates from Greek as “in feeling”.

etymology of empathy.png

Both words share the root pathos, which originally meant a quality that evokes pity or suffering.

This is the key difference:

  • Sympathy means to feel pity or suffering with someone.
  • Empathy means to be inside someone else’s pity or suffering.

When we need to help others, sympathy helps no one. Sympathy simply doubles the amount of suffering in the world. Empathy – the ability to understand someone else’s suffering, to see the world through their eyes – is far more useful.

When we see the world through someone else’s eyes, we understand why they make the decisions they make, even if we don’t agree with those decisions. We perceive the conditions which generate their choices.

When we truly see the world through someone else’s eyes, we can help guide them to make better decisions while still being mindful of their limitations.

Adding extra emotion – sympathy – to already emotional situations does little to nothing to help improve things. Perceiving correctly, seeing things as they are from someone else’s point of view – empathy – can help me to help others find solutions to their problems. Given a choice between sympathy and empathy, I choose empathy every time.

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