I remember confusing the two some years back. During a recent situation i began to recollect how people tend to confuse the two. After all to empathize or sympathize for someone going through a tough time is a natural response for many of us. But there is a striking difference in the two states.
In the recent MH 370 flight case, what most of us can do is just sympathize. This is because in order to empathize one should have experienced and gone through the situation. To empathize is to understand precisely what the person is going through since you have been through the exact similar situation. I strongly believe that when we are being sold something with a promise or a warranty especially in case of a service, all the sales person is doing is sympathizing for your current state. Heading for the spa after a hard day, you are more likely to hear, ‘We understand your stress and physical strain and hence do what’s best for you”. Well do they? I have my doubts. At a weight loss clinic, the promising dietitian may not have put herself through years of bland food. All she / he is sharing could very well be textbook knowledge. But doesn’t she speak and empathize when you fall back? She is only sympathizing.
This brings me to larger issues we face in life, at work or in crucial stages. We are more likely to say that we empathize but we wouldn’t have really gone down the same road as others to do so. Hence i think more often than not we are only sympathizing. Empathy is also used in a more personal context whereas you could sympathize with anyone from your neighbors to co-workers. I leave you with this quote to mull over this for longer:
“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”
― Daniel Goleman