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“If you’re looking for sympathy you’ll find it between shit and syphilis in the dictionary.”
David Sedaris

The terms empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but they have quite different meanings, and varied and veiled connotations. The differences between the terms are attributed to emotional factors, rather than grammar.  Both empathy and sympathy are forms of having concern for another person’s well-being. The easiest way to describe empathy, is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Empathy occurs when you are truly trying to understand or experience someone else’s emotions, as if they were your own.  Empathy is a shared experience.  Sympathy is saying what is expected, and often laced with platitudes. In today’s current parlance, sympathy has a negative-tinged characteristic that almost comes out as pity.  It is natural to want to make things better for others, but it doesn’t always work that way.  On the other hand, when you are empathetic, you do your own golden rule and “treat others as you would like to be treated.”

Both sympathy and empathy have roots in the Greek term páthos meaning suffering and feeling.  Empathy is formed from the ancient Greek work empatheia with the prefix en plus the root pathos meaning feeling, which literally means “in feeling.”  Sympathy is from the Greek word sympatheia, and is formed from the prefix sum, meaning together, combined with pathos, which translates to mean “together feeling or together suffering.”  Sympathy is the older of the two terms, dating back to the mid-1500’s.  Sympathy is more of an act of commiseration and an acknowledgement of another’s grief.  But, sympathy often has pejorative connotations, with thoughts of lacy greeting cards and corny prosaicisms.

Empathy is the newer of the two words and first appeared in English in 1909 when it was translated by Edward Bradford Titchener from the German Einfühlung, an old concept that had been gaining new meaning and increased relevance from the 1870s onward. Empathy, at the turn of the century, was used to describe a unique combination of intellectual effort and bodily feelings, thought to characterize visual experiences.


Now that I have dumped all over the term sympathy, it still has a place in our lexicon.  Sympathy is a virtue, it’s just that empathy wins out in a head-to-head contest, particularly when you are dealing with someone in grief.  Some research has shown that you can boost your empathy levels by doing certain things like reading more fiction and thus being more immersed in the characters’ lives.  I would also argue that watching a tear jerker, four-hankie movie, can improve your empathy skills.  Besides, a good cry never hurt anyone. Being in tune with others is great, but it does require Costco-sizes boxes of tissues.  I also think that empathy skills, like self-compassion, can be internalized.  Just listening more, sharing in other people’s joy, and learning to read facial expressions might give you the tools to become more empathetic.


If you really want to test out your empathy level try this on-line test to help you better understand where you stand in the empathic arena:  http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/quizzes/take_quiz/14

I won’t reveal my number but feel free to contact me with the results!


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