Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy (Grammar Rules)

Learn when you're using empathy vs. sympathy vs. apathy with Grammar Rules from the Writer's Digest editors, including their differences and when they might overlap.
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If you have trouble with understanding the difference between empathy, sympathy, and apathy, don't worry: It's not uncommon. They're all types of feelings, but they are decidedly different.

(Click here to learn more grammar rules for writers.)

Let's look at what each means and parse out how they differ.

empathy_vs_sympathy_vs_apathy_grammar_rules_robert_lee_brewer

Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Apathy

Empathy is having the ability to understand what another person experiences from their point of view. There are actually three types of empathy (click here to learn more). In some cases, people experiencing empathy actually go beyond understanding another's experience and can actually feel it.

Sympathy is when someone shares feelings of sadness for another person's misfortune. While someone with empathy may feel sympathy for a friend, it's not necessary for these feelings to overlap. For instance, a person can have sympathy for a friend who lost a loved one but have no idea what that experience is like, but they do know their friend is sad. Conversely, a person could be super empathetic and not feel sympathy for someone is experiencing a hard time.

(Analogy vs. metaphor vs. simile.)

Apathy is a complete lack of feeling or concern for something or someone. It's not malicious or angry; rather, it's complete indifference. Perhaps, a numbness to a situation. As such, apathy and sympathy cannot co-exist. However, empathy and apathy could, because a person could understand another person's experiences and not care.

Here are a couple examples:

Person A: She hears about a friend who recently broke up with a spouse and feels upset for her friend and understands from her own experiences how her friend must feel (and may even feel heartbroken herself). (Empathetic sympathy)

Person B: He knows and understands why his friends are upset about his behavior of constantly using them for transportation without chipping in gas money, but he doesn't care or feel guilt over his behavior. (Empathetic apathy)

Often, people mistakenly believe that empathy equates with compassion. While empathy often can lead to compassion, some people can use empathy to understand another person but don't feel for them. In fact, sociopaths can employ empathy to exploit others.

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