Empathy & Sympathy

I'm often confused about which "empathy" or "sympathy" I should use when describing a situation that someone compassionates to others.

This RSA Shorts makes it very clear about the difference between "empathy" and "sympathy." The concepts are told by Dr. Brené Brown, who studies courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.

So, the bottom line is whether there is an emotional connection or not.

  • empathy: has an emotional connection with the person who's suffering. The heart is being with the sufferer.
  • sympathy: no emotional connection with the person who's suffering. The comment is from a distant place.

I'm getting understand this, but want to dig more about these words.

Words Starting with "em-"

I speculated that maybe the prefix "em" has something to do with this difference.

Because there are many words starting with "em," and it seems they have something in common: embrace, embryo, employment, emotion, embarrassment, embody, etc...

word-forming element meaning "put in or into, bring to a certain state,"


I can relate this to the words I mentioned above.

So then, "empathy" is like the state to take other's suffering into me, and to embrace/feel it together as if I am going through it too.

Words Starting with "sym-"

To compare, I searched "sym-" as well. According to etymonline.com, "sym-" is the "assimilated form of syn-."

word-forming element meaning "together with, jointly; alike; at the same time,"


At a first glance, it looks like "sympathy" means very similar to "empathy" considering the meaning of these prefixes. However, I suppose there is a clear difference between these two: whether I take the other's feelings into myself or not.

"sympathy" feels other's situation together, but not to bring the feeling inside of the heart.

This also applies when I think about "empathy" and "sympathy" in Japanese.「共感 (empathy)」 sounds like it feels the other's feeling together. Yet「同情 (sympathy)」sounds like it's just feeling sorry for the others.



What I understood:

  • empathy: the state to emotionally immerse in the other's situation and to try to feel the other's feeling with them.
  • sympathy: the state to feel sorry for the other's situation from the outside.

I think I won't confuse "empathy" and "sympathy" anymore!

\ Share /

Leave a Comment