Make Your Editor Cry: Empathy vs. Sympathy

Make Your Editor Cry: Empathy vs. Sympathy

Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia, literally, passion, from empathēs emotional, from em- + pathos feelings, emotion and was first used in English in 1909 to describe how a viewer’s appreciation of art depends on her ability to project her personality onto the art. These days it applies to anything you can basically “project your personality” on. When you feel what someone else feels, that’s empathy. It’s a good skill for doctors, actors, and writers. Use empathy if you’re looking for a noun meaning “the ability to identify with another’s feelings.”

Sympathy is an older word also from the Greek sympatheia, meaning “having a fellow feeling.” It’s a snuggly, comforting word. It’s nice to get sympathy if you’re feeling under the weather. Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sense of compassion — it’s when you feel bad for someone else who’s going through something hard.

You can feel empathy for any emotion someone else is experiencing, not just a emotions associated with hard times. You can feel sympathy when someone is experiencing hard times. If you’re feeling empathy, you’re embedded in the feelings mutually. If it’s sympathy, you’re feeling sorry forsomeone going through a tough time, but you are not experiencing his or her emotions or difficulties.

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