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Difference Between Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion


The three words, namely sympathy, empathy, and compassion in the English language often seem similar in meaning and are used sometimes in a similar situation. Although all three basically represent a positive, supportive, and genuine feeling towards other people’s sufferings and pain, and despite their meanings seeming to vary only a little, there is wide differentiation in their actual practical meaning and sense. This piece of writing is aimed at understanding those minute disparities in the implication and significance of these terms with clarity.

What does the word sympathy mean?

Sympathy as per the dictionary definition is a feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else's misfortune or pain and thus the word signifies recognition of and a feeling of sorrow for someone else’s pain and suffering. However, if we go deeper into comparing it with other similar terms under discussion, it usually does not involve any deep realization of that sorrow by the person who is expressing this emotion to someone or for someone. It does not necessarily mean that the person is being inconsiderate of others' feelings and is disregarding their situation but it simply signifies that they are not able to fathom or understand the depth of how that other person must be feeling. Rather they know in general from their situation that they are in pain and they are trying to feel it to the best of their knowledge.

This all implies that when we are trying to sympathize with someone we are only able to say some words to them that may be a solace to them but we are not feeling or to put it correctly are not able to feel what they feel. Hence, the words of sympathy oftentimes are superficially uttered and not felt. Sympathy in this light is basically an outward expression and it doesn't give the person any deeper insights into the suffering the other person is going through.


How empathy is different from sympathy?

Where sympathy means recognizing other people’s misfortune of pain, empathy goes a step ahead. An empath is a person who not only recognizes their sufferings but also feels them. As the empathy acts deep inwardly it also causes similar chemical and emotional changes inside the body of the empath as undergone by the sufferer.

An epic example of empathy can be sought in the film career of legendry actor of Bollywood Dilip Kumar who must be an outright empath to engross so deep in the tragic characters he played in the movies that his health had started to suffer from those roles and his doctor advised him to do some light-hearted comedy roles instead to recover from the deep anxiety and depression he had developed from his acting work.

Another example of empathy can be taken from our general life. While watching a movie with your family or friends, you must have noticed several times that when there is some tragic scene being played in the movie, some members are all in tears and some others are well in control of their emotions. Here the crying viewers are the empaths who catch the emotions just being depicted on the screen. Empathy in general acts like this. The person feeling empathy easily catches the emotion and is able to realize it at a deeper level.

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There is no need to be scared of feeling empathy. It, in fact, is a sacred emotion that helps us feel how other fellow humans are feeling, and therefore we understand the actual situation. However, these people must be a little careful and need to learn to detach themselves from the pain itself so they don’t become the sufferers but helpers instead.


What is compassion?

Compassion, on the other hand, is sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings and misfortune of others. Both sympathetic and empathic people can be compassionate. Compassion is more practical than an emotional approach towards the situation and the well-being of the sufferer. It is just the other perspective that allows you to show the problem as well as some pragmatic solution to make a difference.

It generally involves the thought of making a change and can also lead to making a difference. It can be considered as the one at the balancing point of sympathy and empathy. Being concerned about other people’s sufferings and an effort to bring about the change by thoughts, ideas, or actions. This is that brings many people into charity and activism. When you feel compassion for somebody or for a community you may have the idea of the suffering or the actual feeling like an empath but at the same time are in control of your emotions and convert them into a force some healing thoughts or actions. For instance, you see a person sitting in the corner. A sympathetic person will see them will know that they are sad and at the most can suggest them to do join the fun but don't know how to persuade them to do so or feel the other way if they are resistant to the idea. An empath in this case will start to catch their energy and thinking about them constantly will themselves lose all their fun spirit. They can try to make them happy but if their efforts fail they will be overthinking over the matter guessing what would have been the reason for their pain and so on. On the other hand, a compassionate person will go to them with a smile, will sit with them, try to understand their situation. If they are unwilling to go a step ahead they will ask their friends and will try to present or seek some solution to change their mood. In short, a compassionate person is proactive in their approach.

To sum up

The primary difference between 'sympathy', 'empathy' and 'compassion' is that where sympathy lacks deeper emotions, empathy is too full of emotions, compassion is a feeling of concern towards the well-being of others and a feeling that they deserve to be in a better situation. In general, all three are sacred emotions coming from the place of trying to help others.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Jas Kailey

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