When you understand how someone feels, do you sympathize with them or do you empathize with them? I have personally been confused by the differentiation between these two words on a few occasions. But, have no fear, Miss Ink’s latest Grammar Refresher is here. To really understand these words, you have to first understand the definitions of “sympathy” and “empathy.” Sympathy means to share feelings with someone or to experience a feeling as a result of another person’s experience. Empathy means to understand the experience, whether feelings, thoughts or experiences, with another person.
Sympathize: When you share someone’s grief or suffering, you sympathize with them. In other words, you feel for them, but you don’t necessarily understand their emotions if you have not experienced something similar. It’s easy to remember when you think, sympathize equals to share.
Example: I sympathize with the despair of homeless veterans.
Empathize: The experience of empathy. In other words understanding or empathizing with their feelings, thoughts or experiences. It’s easy to remember when you associate empathy with experience.
Example: Being a mother myself, I can empathize with Suzy’s feeling of exhaustion.
Let’s try it out:
A. I have never worked the night shift at a job, but I can empathize with how difficult those hours must be.
B. I have never worked the night shift at a job, but I can sympathize with how difficult those hours must be.
Answer: The correct answer is “B.” The key is that this person has not experienced a night shift so therefore, they can only share the emotion from an objective point of view.
Let’s try one more:
A. I can sympathize with your frustration. I had termites in my house several months ago.
B. I can empathize with your frustration. I had termites in my house several months ago.
Answer: The correct answer is “B.” The person speaking had a similar experience and therefore has a firsthand understanding of the other person’s frustration.
One more tip: You have sympathy for someone because you have felt a similar emotion. You empathize with someone when you have experienced the same situation.
For more detailed information on the meaning of these words check out Merriam-Webster online. It is a fantastic resource that helped me put together this Grammar Refresher.