Here’s The Difference Between Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion
By Shawna Rich-Ginsberg August 22 2019
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama
A few years back, an animated video hit social media that beautifully described the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. Featuring the powerful words of Brené Brown (my mentor), I started to consider the ways I could incorporate these teachings into my support work and teachings.
While these words are related, they actually mean very different things and the behaviours we mirror of them are different too.
“It’s so sad that you just lost your best friend.”
Sympathy is feeling sorry for another’s hurt or pain. There is some emotional distancing with sympathy – you are not experiencing the pain yourself, but you are saying you understand the feeling. You might be thinking “Isn’t it sad that this person is grieving or experiencing pain?” Sympathy can quickly turn into pity, which can dehumanize and belittle people. Pity strips people of the reality of their human experience and does not foster connection. Some people question whether there is even a place for sympathy in a relationship. My personal feeling is that in the case of strangers or acquaintances you may not feel a person’s pain, but you want them to know you are thinking of them. Enter the “sympathy” card, which is a gesture of kindness in and of itself.
“I know you loved your friend deeply…I can hear you are in a lot of pain.”
Empathy is the ability to experience for yourself some of the pain that the other person may be experiencing. It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear. You do not need to have experienced exactly the same events as the person who is suffering but you do need to have the ability to really imagine how they must be feeling in their situation. Empathy is a vicarious or visceral experience – if your friend is feeling scared, you too can draw on the experience of feeling fear in your body; if they are sad, you too may have felt sorrow at some point. Feeling empathy is allowing yourself to become tuned into another person’s emotional experience. It takes courage to do this but if you have ever experienced real empathy from another when you have been hurting, you will know that it fosters true connection.
It’s important to remember that feeling another person’s pain does not mean taking away from their unique experience. Sometimes it is easy to re–live our own pain when we are triggered by someone else and we have to be mindful of what holding space for someone else’s pain feels like. When in doubt, reflecting back and acknowledging what they may be experiencing is a great tool.
“I can sense that you are in a lot of pain. I am here for as long as you want me to be”
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you are practicing compassion, you stay present with suffering and try to alleviate it. If empathy is the ability to really experience some of the feelings of pain that another person is feeling, then compassion is to translate that feeling into action. It is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own. Sometimes this is in the form of what is known as holding space and being present, and sometimes this means doing something actionable like cooking a meal for someone.
Practicing compassion can be a learned skill and there are studies looking at the benefits for people who actively engage in compassionate acts.
I often tell people that in order to bring the power of compassion into your life, there are a few things you can do. Firstly, you need to begin to develop an ability to walk in other people’s shoes. Being self-aware and practicing mindfulness can really help to take stock of how you are responding to another person. Also, good self-care practices can help us to replenish our capacity for empathy and compassion. Compassion takes energy and requires us to be open and vulnerable to experiencing pain.
In fact, an important distinction between empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience burnout. This is a common problem for caregivers and health care providers, and it’s been labelled “compassion fatigue.”
Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you are able to feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out. Research indicates that compassion and empathy use different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress.
It is also important to remember that oftentimes, the smallest act of compassion can have the biggest impact. For example, has anyone ever truly listened to you as you share your feelings? Did this person listen without trying to fix you? Was this person relating it back to their own life? Did they listen without judgment? Simply listening with your full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts you can offer. Unfortunately, compassionate listening these days is rare as it competes with busy lives and technology that distracts us from being present. There is always time to become an expert and I encourage you to try it.
For more tips on the fundamentals of support, check out this story.
Shawna Rich-Ginsberg is a trained counselor and Rethink’s Senior Manager of Support & Education Programs. She has presented at international conferences on a variety of psychosocial oncology-related topics including: models of peer support, talking to children about cancer and building a legacy when faced with end of life care decisions. Currently, she is in the process of obtaining her Master’s in Social Work from Laurier University.