Empathy refers to the understanding and sharing of a specific emotional state with another person. It is the capacity to recognize feelings that are being experienced by another sentient or semi-sentient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion.
Sympathy, however, does not require the sharing of the same emotional state. It is an extension of empathic concern, or the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another human being. This empathic concern is driven by a switch in viewpoint, from a personal perspective to the perspective of another group or individual who is in need. Empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably, but the two terms have distinct origins and meanings. Instead, sympathy is merely a concern for the well-being of another individual or group of individuals. Although sympathy *may* begin with empathizing with the same emotion another person is feeling, sympathy *can also* be extended to other emotional states.
Clear as mud? I thought so, too. Here's a definition of Empathy that I like: "The ability to put oneself into the mental shoes of another person to understand her emotions and feelings."
Whereas Sympathy seems to be an outwardly-generated emotional state. "There are some specific conditions that need to happen in order to experience sympathy. These conditions include attention to a subject, believing that a person (or group) is in a state of need, and the characteristics of a given situation."
"The state of need of an individual or group is also considered during the creation of sympathy. Varying states of need (such as perceived vulnerability or pain) require unique human reactions, often ranging from attention to sympathy. A person experiencing cancer might warrant a feeling of sympathy more than a person who has a cold. The conditions under which sympathy is selected as an appropriate response are organized more broadly into individual differences and situational differences."
Okay, I'm just going to keep going with the Wikipedia article, because this is FASCINATING and because according to this, I've been using "sympathy", and possibly "sympathetic to", all wrong!!
Sympathy also operates based on the principle of the powerful helping the vulnerable. Therefore, those who are perceived as vulnerable (young, elderly, sick) become the target of sympathy. This desire to help the vulnerable has been suggested to stem from the paternalistic nature of humans, where humans seek to protect and aid their children in survival. People help others as if they were their own children or family when they are in need.
Individual moods, previous experiences, social connections, novelty, salience, and spacial proximity can also influence the experience of sympathy. Individuals experiencing positive mood states and people who have similar life experiences are more likely to produce sympathy.
Spacial proximity, or when a person or group exists close geographically (such as neighbors and citizens of a given country), they will more likely experience sympathy towards each other. Similarly, social proximity follows the same pattern. Members of certain groups (ex. racial groups) favor people who are also members of groups similar to their own. Social proximity is intimately linked with in-group and out-group status. In-group status, or a person falling within a certain social group, is also integral to the experience of sympathy. With this reasoning, it would be easier to feel sympathy for someone with the same religious beliefs than for someone in a religious group that one is not a part of. Both of these processes are based on the notion that people within the same group are interconnected and share successes and failures and therefore experience more sympathy towards each other than to out-group members, or social outsiders."
Ooooookay. Okay. So: Empathy is what you feel, whether you act on it or not, when you perceive a human/semi-sentient being near you in distress. Cat, child, homeless person, significant other in a sad mood, etc. SYMPATHY is how you...react to your empathy, I guess. Does that sound right to everyone?
If it does, or even if it doesn't, I get to run with it because it's MY blog, so that's what I'm going with.
(Bonus round: Empathic Concern is just another term for Sympathy. Other acronyms used: compassion, pity. Again: active emotions that usually draw from "empathy" as a starting point, but are not *required* to do so.)