Illustration for the article titled How to Tell the Difference Between Sympathy and EmpathyPhoto: Drachenbilder (Shutterstock)

The words “sympathy” and “empathy” are often used interchangeably, but while both refer to how one reacts to another’s suffering, they do not mean the same or offer the same experience to you or the person receiving them.

Here’s something to start with Grammar says about the history of empathy and sympathy and how they are connected:

Of the two words, empathy is the most recent entry into the English language. Sympathy was in use for nearly 300 years before Empathy made its first written record in the nineteenth century. You may notice that both words contain -pathy, and that makes them similar – they share the same root Greek word pathos, which means “feelings” or “emotions”, but also “suffering” or “unhappiness”. Although both words deal with emotions, they are still far from being synonyms.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to picture yourself in someone else’s situation, either because you have experienced something similar or because you can understand their feelings to a depth that makes it feel like you have them. Being empathic means to create a shared experience with another person.

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Empathy usually looks like someone who is really listening, and it can sound like, “This must be so difficult” and “How are you?” A children’s book about empathy (by Daron K. Roberts) explains it in a way that both adults and children can understand:

It’s when you are feeling with someone who is experiencing something that is tough, sad, or scary. Empathy means listening, not judging, empathizing with them and asking questions.

In other words, empathizing is experiencing someone else’s emotions. It feels like with someone.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is less about experiencing another person’s emotions and more about feeling and expressing your concern, pity, or sadness over their pain or unhappiness. “Sympathy Cards” are aptly named because they allow you to express the sadness you feel about your experience.

When someone empathizes, they feel bad about what someone else is going through without fully going on the emotional journey with them. Sympathy sounds like “I’m sorry” or “This really sucks.”

In other words, to empathize is to feel sorry for the struggle another is going through. It’s a feeling for someone.