You read in the newspapers about the recent air disaster which has led to innumerable loss of lives. Your instant reaction would be that of sympathy for those who have lost their lives and to those who have lost their beloved ones in the air disaster. But do you feel empathy, can you really experience the shattered feeling or emotional experience of those who have lost their loved ones.
Empathy and sympathy are both feelings and emotions we experience as human beings but there are distinct differences attached to these two states of emotions. Sympathy is a feeling of pity you have for a person without specifically understanding the emotion they are undergoing. In most cases you may not really understand the other person’s predicament but are aware of his plight and discomfort. So you feel sympathy for the person.
On the other hand when you are fully aware of the experience that the other person is undergoing, you feel with the emotion the person is experiencing. In short you feel empathy for the person. It is a state where you can literally put yourself in the other person’s place and understand their plight. The feeling of empathy thus implies an active involvement with the person concerned.
Sympathy has its origin in the Latin word ‘sympatheia’ which means suffering together. Empathy has its origin from the Greek ‘empatheia’ meaning ‘physical affection’. It is possible to use empathy erroneously as a synonym for sympathy. But there is world of difference between the two.
Empathy is when you are literally feeling with the other person, it’s like entering into their feelings. The best part of empathy is that a person feels and relates to another’s emotions and thoughts without any of these directly communicated to the person. The use of the word “with” sums up the extent of involvement the person feels when he is in a state of empathy with someone. Sympathy is having a similar feeling with many others for a particular person or event. It is a feeling of pity and pain for other people who are suffering. The feeling here is of recognition rather than sharing another person’s suffering.
The words sympathy and empathy are related in the sense both are feelings based on compassion. Sympathy is usually a feeling of caring for the poor or people who are less fortunate. Empathy is generally felt for a person with whom you are emotionally involved, or a person you know. They may include members of a family, friends or even people of your community.
An example of sympathy would be when you tell an acquaintance “I offer my sympathy for the loss of your father”. You would be probably telling your best friend “I can empathize with your feeling of anguish and pain at the loss of your father.” It is possible to be sympathetic and empathetic at the same time. If your neighbor has lost her father in an accident, you no doubt will feel sympathy for her but at the same time you may also feel empathy if you have similarly lost a loved one.