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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 or sometimes intentionally chooses to stay out of the situation for good. 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.

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.

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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.

When to be Sympathetic, Empathetic, or Compassionate?

Although sympathy, empathy, and compassion are three different types of emotions, they are not tags that a person is only sympathetic, empathetic, or compassionate. The same person can be all of them at different times as per the situation or by choice. Where best we can show each emotion?

We sympathize when we don't want to involve in a situation or can't afford to and know that empathy or compassion can have a negative impact only. We can help only to sympathize. However, how is that possible?

Imagine a person in a public place, who is using abusive language. You can only sympathize with those facing that aggressive behavior and with the offender as they must be facing the consequences of that bad habit, having no good friends. You can't do anything about it. Or, take a case of TV news. Miles away, some crime or riot happened and the victim(s) suffered immensely or lost their life. You can only sympathize. In any of such situations neither you can do anything practically, nor you can involve emotionally. Trying to feel their agony will only have an ill impact on your own health and mental state if you overthink this. You just have to accept what is and sympathize. Yes, you can add a little compassion by praying for them that they get the strength to bear it or guidance to choose the right path and let go.

Empathy is needed, when we want to help someone exactly they need it. So, we need to understand their state fully. If you are a life coach or counselor or in general want to give advice to someone to solve the problems they face, you can only justify it if you feel their situation and talk from your own experience. Raising children is no less than life coaching. You need to understand your children deeply to give the right guidance.

Compassion can be in any little act of charity or to help people who are actually in need of your help and who are receptive to it. Never waste your compassion on the undeserving, who don't need it or value your efforts. Just sympathize and especially draw boundaries with people who just know how to take advantage of others.

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. Use them freely, for they make you human.

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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