You have empathy for the homeless man on the corner, but does that also mean you have compassion for him? You send a sympathy card when someone dies, but why isn’t it a compassion card? Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are three words that many use interchangeably. It’s a legitimate mistake, because these words can be confusing.
While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.
Let’s unpack this more to understand the difference between compassion, sympathy, and empathy.
Empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels. Thanks to what researchers have deemed “mirror neurons,” empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw me slam a car door on my fingers, you may feel pain in your fingers as well. That feeling means your mirror neurons have kicked in.
You may not always automatically feel how another is feeling, and that’s when you need to rely on your imagination. You have most likely heard the phrase, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” That’s the other route to being an empathetic person.
For example, perhaps you saw me slam my fingers in a car door, but you didn’t automatically feel that pain. Instead, you can you can empathize by imagining what it might be like to have your fingers slammed in a door, and that may allow you to feel my pain.
By the way, empathy isn’t just for unpleasant feelings. You can feel empathy when you see someone happy, too. Isn’t it great when someone walks in the room smiling, and that makes you smile?
It’s not easy to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference is that when you have sympathy, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, you may not be able to viscerally feel that person’s pain. However, you can employ your cognitive skills to understand that your friend is sad.
It makes sense, then, to send sympathy cards when you understand that someone is suffering. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want them to know you are aware of their suffering.
Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do your best to alleviate the person’s suffering from that situation.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering.
Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process:
- Awareness of suffering.
- Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
- Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
- Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.
Because of the above four steps, participants of CCT first learn about and practice mindfulness. This makes sense because you aren’t able to notice other people's suffering unless you are in the present moment.
As a teacher of CCT, I often field questions about compassion. My students ask if certain acts are considered compassionate, because they believe their small acts aren’t “enough.” I ask them to consider how, oftentimes, the smallest act of compassion can have the biggest impact.
For example, has anyone ever truly listened to you as you share a problem? This person listened without trying to fix your problem, and this person wasn’t relating it back to his/her own life or emotions. He/she listened without judgment.
The simple act of listening with your full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts you can offer. Unfortunately, compassionate listening has become increasingly rare as technology and busy lives may pull your attention away.
An important distinction between feeling empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience overwhelm or burnout. This is a common problem for caregivers and health care providers, and it’s been labeled “empathy fatigue.”
Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you have the ability to feel empathy for the other person but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out.
Research indicates that compassion and empathy employ different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress.
Don’t take it from me, though. The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
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