Angela’s ABCs – Empathy and Sympathy by Angela Caldin

I’ve been thinking for some time about how best to define these two words whose meanings are, for me, hard to pin down.  After much thought and consultation with friends, I’ve come up with the following:

Empathy is the capacity to share in the feelings and identify with the emotions of others by knowing or imagining what it would be like to be in their situation:

  • Years of working with victims of crime had given her deep empathy with them and the problems they faced.
  • In his novels, Henry James showed extraordinary empathy with his female characters and was able to analyse their motives.

Sympathy is the ability to feel compassion for the feelings of others and to care about someone else’s situation.

  • She was touched by the many messages of sympathy she received when her beloved dog died.
  • I felt little sympathy for my son when he failed the exam because he had done very little work.

It’s possible that one may need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion. On the other hand, it may be possible to be empathetic in certain circumstances without being sympathetic. For example: if a person has lost a loved one in a traffic accident caused by a careless driver, one may feel empathy because of the person’s tragic loss, but not feel sympathy for their desire for revenge.

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