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 near 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.
When you are viscerally feeling what another person feels, you are experiencing.Thanks to your brain’s researchers “mirror neurons,” empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw a spider crawling up my arm, you may feel a tickle on your arm.
But what about when you don’t automatically feel the sensation of another? That’s where your imagination kicks in. You have most likely heard the phrase, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” That’s the other route to empathy.
For example, perhaps you saw me slam my fingers in a car door, but you didn’t automatically feel that pain. Instead, you can imagine 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 reserved for unpleasant feelings only. You can feel empathy when you witness joy, too. Isn’t it great when someone walks in the room smiling, and that makes you smile?
It can be tricky to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference? When you are sympathetic, 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 physically feel that person’s pain. However, you can understand that your friend is sad.
This explains why you send sympathy cards when your friend’s loved one has passed away. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want your friend to know you are aware of her suffering.
Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy up a notch. 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 what you can to to alleviate the person’s suffering.
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, CCT participants first learn about and practice mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment. Why mindfulness? Because you aren’t able to notice that someone is suffering unless you are fully present.
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 own life. He listened without judgment. Simply 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 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 are able to feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out. Research indicates that compassion and empathy use 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.”