They are not the same.

In 1855, Walt Whitman described his reaction to a person in pain in his poem “Song of Myself.”

I do not ask a wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person,
My hurt turns livid upon me as I lean on a cane and observe.

What did the poet mean when he said that he would “become the wounded person?” Would his transformation be an example of empathy or sympathy? What’s the difference? The words are easy to confuse. They are both derived from Greek, and the spelling only differs by a couple of letters. Here is a comparison of these two powerful terms.


Sympathy derives from Greek words meaning “with feeling.” The word is most commonly used to describe the way we share someone else’s feelings, especially feelings of sorrow or trouble. Hence, greeting cards given to mourning families are called sympathy cards. Sympathy can also refer to the sense of harmony between people with the same tastes, disposition, or opinions. When a person feels sympathy toward a cause or an organization, he has feelings of approval, loyalty, or support. Notice how some have illustrated this quality of fellow feeling:

Sympathy is two hearts tugging at one load. ―Charles Henry Parkhurst

I have all my life had a sympathy for mongrel ungainly dogs, who are nobody’s pets; and I would rather surprise one of them by a pat and a pleasant morsel, than meet the condescending advances of the loveliest Skye-terrier who has his cushion by my lady’s chair. —George Eliot

Reproach has broken my heart, and the wound is incurable. I was hoping for sympathy, but there was none, And for comforters, but I found none.―(Psalm 69:20)


The Greek phrase that lends empathy its meaning is “passion from feelings or emotion.” Most people know empathy has to do with understanding and sharing the experiences, feelings, and emotions of another person. However, empathy can also refer to using imagination to ascribe your feelings or attitudes to an object, such as a painting or a natural object. Consider these quotations:

Empathy is the faculty to resonate with the feelings of others. When we meet someone who is joyful, we smile. When we witness someone in pain, we suffer in resonance with his or her suffering. ―Matthieu Ricard

At 10, I heard Neil Diamond’s Solitary Man and it moved me so deeply I stood, frozen in place during school recess, feeling such empathy for the narrator in Diamond’s masterpiece that my heart was smashed. ―Dan Hill

I’ve always thought of acting as more of an exercise in empathy, which is not to be confused with sympathy. You’re trying to get inside a certain emotional reality or motivational reality and try to figure out what that’s about so you can represent it. ―Edward Norton

Which quality was Whitman illustrating in his poem? Empathy—by becoming “the wounded person,” he vicariously experiences their suffering. Is it possible to completely understand how someone else feels? Most people have to content themselves with feeling sympathy—the quality of caring about someone’s misfortunes or the feeling of emotional or intellectual accord with another individual. Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes that since “humans aren’t as good as we should be in our capacity to empathize with feelings and thoughts of others . . . maybe part of our formal education should be training in empathy. Imagine how different the world would be if, in fact, [we learned] ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, empathy.’” Some schools do include character education in their curriculum. Debbie Dunn composed a song called “Sympathy versus Empathy” to help grade schoolers remember the differences between the two terms. Why not give it a listen?