The Differences Between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

The terms empathy, sympathy, and compassion are often used interchangeably. While they all refer to the act of understanding and feeling for others, there are important distinctions between the three concepts. In this blog post, we will explore the differences between empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

Empathy is often described as “feeling with”. It is the ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand their feelings and perspective. Empathy is understanding human experiences without making judgements about them. We all have these feelings and needs, it is what unites us. Empathy involves feeling the other person’s experience in our bodies as well as using our brains to make guesses about what the other person might be feeling and needing. It’s being with the person in their feelings while also acknowledging separateness from them. This separateness part is really important and I want to emphasize it. Without the separateness, we may be projecting our feelings and experiences onto others.

In projection, we assume that our experience is also experienced by the other person. If we are self-critical, we project that the other person is critical of us also. If we experience hurt and sadness, we assume the other person also experiences those feelings. The fastest way to make sure we are in empathy and not projection is to check in with the other person. In NVC this is called “checking your assumptions”. It is also possible to feel empathy and not talk to the other person to “check in”. So long as you are not making assumptions, you can stay in empathy, “I wonder if that person is feeling apprehensive? I think I would feel that way if I were in their position.”

There may be times when you wish to take action after feeling empathy and there may be times when you feel empathy but recognize your own limitations or boundaries. It is possible to feel empathy and not take action.

Sympathy is often described as “feeling for” someone, not “feeling with”. It acknowledges the plight of others without needing to fully feel it yourself. I think sympathy quickly overlaps with empathy. If you recognize someone is experiencing something challenging and it is beyond your capacity to understand in a lot of depth, you might feel sympathy for them. You might have sympathy when you don’t know much about the person’s situation but still wish to acknowledge their feelings, “Oh that sounds awful! I wish you didn’t have to experience that!”

Sometimes people wish for empathy and they receive sympathy. It can be painful to receive sympathy when we wish for empathy. In close relationships we may wish a person we love to be “with us” emotionally and if they offer sympathy instead, it can feel like a platitude, lacking depth.

On the other hand, when we are in pain, it would feel really strange to have people we don’t know that well asking us to be vulnerable with them so they can empathize with us. Receiving sympathy and condolences would likely feel welcomed by people we don’t know very well.

Although the word “empathy” is being held in high regard culturally right now, both sympathy and empathy are useful and supportive. 

Compassion is the act of showing kindness, empathy, and concern for others who are suffering. It’s acknowledging feelings of the person in pain and showing your care by taking action. The desire to take action and help can involve talking or listening, showing support, or providing resources to help them feel better.

Compassion can be an expression of sympathy or empathy. Sending a note of sympathy when someone has died is an act of sympathetic compassion. Holding space for someone’s needs, separately but alongside your own is an expression of empathic compassion.

The act of showing care is usually just called “showing compassion”. We don’t usually draw a distinction between sympathetic and empathic compassion.

It is also important to note that sympathy and empathy can exist without someone showing compassion. We can have sympathetic or empathic thoughts about another person without it ever being expressed. 

In summary, empathy, sympathy, and compassion all involve understanding and feeling for others, but they are different concepts. Empathy involves feeling the emotions of others and experiencing their pain or joy as if it were one’s own. Sympathy involves acknowledging someone’s pain or suffering without necessarily feeling the same emotions. Compassion involves taking action to alleviate someone’s suffering and showing kindness and concern for their well-being. By understanding the differences between empathy, sympathy, and compassion, we can become better at supporting others.


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