We often hear these terms used synonymously but there is a difference between sympathy vs empathy vs compassion. It’s easy to confuse these three because they are used in correlation to the feelings, emotions, and experiences of one person to another. Understanding the meaning behind each of these words can help you better relate to others.
Sympathy vs Empathy vs Compassion — What’s the Difference?
Sympathy is the understanding of another person’s feelings in a way that you convey sorrow or regret for how another person is feeling. Having sympathy is generally expressed as feeling sorry for someone else’s hardship or grief. You may not be able to relate to that person’s particular experience but you have an understanding of what they may be feeling or going through.
An example of sympathy most can identify with is in the event of a death or loss of someone. Think of greeting cards and how they’re labeled. You will most likely find the category labeled sympathy which refers to cards that deliver a special message for someone who is experiencing loss.
You convey sympathy by acknowledging another person’s feelings or misfortune. Your support lets them know you care and are thinking of them. Most people like to offer their condolences to someone experiencing grief through supportive messages or specific greeting cards and even through gifts. Other ways of expressing sympathy for someone experiencing a misfortune or hardship can be offering words of encouragement or being receptive and understanding to their needs. Having sympathy for a friend that may be dealing with emotional distress or depression can also prove beneficial to their well-being. You are making it aware that their feelings are not being dismissed and you are there for them.
There is a fine line between having sympathy for someone and pity so it’s important to distinguish these two. Showing pity for someone can be ill-received because most people don’t want to be pitied. Pity is feeling sorry for someone but in a way that isn’t typically supportive.
Rather, pitying someone usually comes from feeling sorry for a person who is worse off than yourself or others. Having pity on someone is not the same as sympathy and often results in belittling someone or dehumanizing that person. It may not be intentional but pity can be perceived all the same. One example is a person with a disability or who may be challenged in some way. A better way to connect with someone in that sense is by means of expressing empathy or compassion.
Empathy is a little different from sympathy as it is the ability to read and actually feel what others are feeling. This may be voluntary or involuntary and you might not recognize it as it occurs.
There are different forms of empathy which can be positive and negative and may affect people in various ways. One possible explanation for why we may experience empathy is due to ‘mirror neurons’ in the brain which psychologists and neuroscientists believe triggers a reaction from witnessing another’s actions.
An example of empathy that can be physical is when you actually feel something someone else is experiencing. If you see someone with an insect crawling on them, for instance, you may experience a similar sensation on your arm. The same can be experienced with pain as well as other sensations and emotions. You can feel sadness when your friend or a loved one is sad or joy and excitement around someone who is excited.
It’s easy to mistake empathy for sympathy and it happens often. Have you ever heard the common expression ‘sympathy pains’ referring to one person physically feeling the pain another person is currently experiencing. This is really an example of empathy rather than sympathy.
Sympathy is the understanding of an emotion or relating to how someone is feeling without actually feeling those emotions or feeling.
Another form of empathy is one that isn’t physical, rather you acknowledge and recognize another person’s feelings or experience. You can tune into another person’s emotions on a deeper level. You may have shared in that person’s experience or you can imagine yourself in their particular circumstance.
Are you an Empath?
You may have heard someone being referred to as an empath or may be one yourself. A person who is an empath has the ability to feel and sense emotions and the feelings of others on a more intense level than the average person. Think of an empath as an emotional sponge having the ability to absorb the feelings of others around them. People who are empaths are more receptive to others and often share similar traits. One example is in twins who may share the same physical and emotional feelings the other sibling is experiencing. Not all empaths experience the same qualities but a few common traits might include:
An empath is more receptive to things around them which makes them highly sensitive to their surroundings. This doesn’t just apply with emotions and feelings, but can apply to senses as well like smells and sounds. They might feel uncomfortable or overwhelmed in crowded places. They’re also prone to having their feelings hurt more and are often told they are ‘too sensitive’ or need to toughen up. On the other hand, empaths are great natural nurtures with a big heart. They’re also great at listening and being open spiritually.
Empaths tend to be much more intuitive than the average person. They have a good sense of reading people and are intuitive to positive and negative energy. They may use subtle cues that help them determine if someone is being dishonest or if something feels off. An empath may rely on their intuition when making decisions.
Love of Nature
An empath often finds peace and comfort in nature. Nature in itself promotes a calming and relaxing environment, but empaths are more drawn to nature settings as their other heightened
senses are at ease. They may enjoy taking walks or hikes through nature trails or simply watching ocean waves crash along the beach.
Because empaths can sense and feel emotions of others they actively avoid confrontations. Mild disagreements can cause distress as empaths feel compelled to address others’ hurt. Their heightened sensitivity also makes it harder for empaths to cope with criticism and curt remarks from others.
People who are empathetic often ignore their own needs and tend to be more concerned with the well-being of others around them. They are naturally inclined to want to help and may actively take part in humanitarian projects. An empathetic person can also be described as compassionate.
Compassion can be confused with empathy as it relates to others’ feelings. It can actually encompass both sympathy and empathy. The difference is in your response. Taking an action as a result of that feeling you empathize or sympathize with to alleviate the suffering or pain of someone else. Expressing compassion is a deeper level from just understanding or sharing their feelings. It extends to anyone and not just someone you know.
If you look at the Latin roots for the term compassion it means ‘’to suffer with”. It may come in many forms. Being compassionate can be recognizing an ongoing problem in the world or in your community and taking actions to find a solution. It can be witnessing someone struggling to make ends meet and helping to alleviate their struggle through some course of action. It could also mean just listening and being present for someone who needs to talk without casting judgement or trying to offer a solution for them.
Compassionate people see the world in a unique way. They gain perspective or view things in a new point of view as they envision themselves in someone else’s shoes. People with compassion are very aware of suffering and seek to relieve that suffering. This can sometimes become emotionally draining as they are not always able to alleviate everyone’s suffering.
There is a strong connection between sympathy vs empathy vs compassion as all three relate to our connection with others. Having empathy has been deemed a desirable quality when it comes to dealing with social interactions. The downside with empaths is they can experience empathic distress as a result from the intense sharing of another’s pain. This is when compassion can provide a crucial element in finding balance and combating empathetic distress. The ability to reach out and relieve someone’s pain can help avert the burnout many empaths experience. Someone may wish to be more compassionate for many reasons. The good news is it is a renewable resource which can be obtained from training through compassion cultivating programs.
There are great things you can gain by having any or all 3 of these traits. People who are capable of sympathy, empathy or compassion may do well in certain career paths that require those traits. People who share sympathy and compassion may be more drawn to jobs in helping others through health care such as nursing, caregivers, or therapists. An alternative route to health care that people with these traits may be comfortable in are areas of providing service.
For instance, empaths or sympathetic people may be more comfortable working in the less popular field of funeral service. Compassionate people tend to thrive in careers where they can effectively help others such as teaching or counseling. These traits can also fuel a desire to pursue a career path related to caring about the earth and animals such as animal rescue or veterinary medicine.
Finding a Healthy Balance
While the three can coincide successfully there may be conflicting characteristics between sympathy vs empathy vs compassion. Empathy and compassion are two affirming characteristics that can prove beneficial in relationships. They can also have negative impacts on your health and well-being. Establishing a healthy balance of these three can help avoid the adverse experiences that might accompany them.
Expressing sympathy, empathy or compassion demonstrates your sensitivity towards others’ feelings and emotions. Unfortunately it can also leave you vulnerable to manipulative behavior and become taken advantage of. Establish and create boundaries for others to avoid becoming a ‘push-over’. It’s important to set up personal expectations and communicate boundaries when it comes to interactions.
In communicating your expectations you must also establish accountability. Let it be known to others where you stand and hold them accountable. If you allow poor behavior from others it will not portray compassion in the long-run. Assess appropriate boundaries in which you are comfortable with and confident you can apply with close friends and family while maintaining concern to their needs.