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A Note on Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I have a friend, S, who is experiencing a rather difficult time. For circumstances mostly out of her control, she has been forced to send her young daughter overseas to China to stay with her in-laws for at least the next few months. Unfortunately, this is not the first time she has had to do this, and I know she was hoping that the last time was going to be the only time. I want to empathize with her, I really do. But there is no way I could ever appreciate what it feels like to have sent my children to the other side of the world and to not be able to see them for months. I can say that I know how it feels to not see my kids when I go away on a vacation for 5 days without them: it is really sad and I miss them dearly. But I know it’s not the same, and trying to pretend that it is would only be ignorant and, most likely, isolating for my friend. All that’s left for me to say is, “it must be so difficult for you,” and “I really have no idea how you are holding up so well,” and maybe even, “I’m so sorry there isn’t any other choice.” For me, all of these sentiments are true. However, it leaves me feeling like I wish I had a better capacity for empathy, if only so that I could offer her more comfort and support.

Empathy is the capacity to share or recognize emotions experienced by another sentient or fictional being.

Sympathy is the perception, understanding, and reaction to the distress or need of another human being.

Compassion is the emotion that one feels in response to the suffering of others that motivates a desire to help.

Definitions from Wikipedia

Humans are the only species capable of showing empathy, apparently. However, just because we’re capable of it, does that mean that we actually do it? And if we do show empathy, does that mean we actually do a good job of it? I’m tempted to say that we don’t.

What about sympathy? Are humans any good at deciding when to show empathy and when to show sympathy? In fact, do we even really know the difference between these two ideas? Even if we do know, are we sure we are using them appropriately? Again, I’m not so sure that we always know.

(I’ll come to compassion later)

I’d like to believe that empathy and sympathy are closely related. There appears to be a push away from sympathy and more towards empathy: the idea is that we should offer support and understanding to someone in distress by identifying with their feelings and experiences in the same way that they are experiencing them. There is a perception of greater connectedness between individuals if we show more empathy. Does that mean, then, that there is no longer a need for sympathy?

Over time it seems that the terms pity and sympathy have become synonymous. Maybe this is a byproduct of the push for empathy over sympathy. It’s not that pity is really that different from sympathy, however. Unfortunately, society seems to loath the idea of receiving pity from someone. How many times have we heard (or even said), “I don’t need/want your pity?” This perpetuates the perception that pity, and therefore sympathy, is something that we shouldn’t be giving to people in distress.

When you look at the definitions though, what is the underlying difference between empathy and sympathy? I would argue that it is the ability to “share and recognize” (empathy) versus the ability to “perceive and understand” (sympathy) a person’s feelings and emotions before engaging in meaningful interactions with them. This would suggest, therefore, that you yourself must have experienced the situations or emotions that someone else is enduring in order to show empathy: how else would you be able to “recognize and share” those emotions? If you haven’t ever experienced those emotions for yourself, then perhaps attempting to “understand” them is the better approach to take. Maybe we become discouraged when it comes to understanding, though, because the situations and emotions are foreign and complex and multifactorial.

Are we doing a disservice to our friends, our partners, or the other people in our lives when we attempt empathy when all we can offer is sympathy? Alternatively, are we being unfair to the people who are trying to support us by expecting a type of response that they are not able or prepared to provide for us?

Empathy is not easy, but I would argue that is really is the best; After all, it is most comforting and relieving to know that someone else has experienced our pain and suffering and has survived it somehow. However, when empathy is attempted and the giver hasn’t actually experienced the same struggle, it only fosters disconnection and the idea that the person offering empathy really has no idea (and hasn’t taken the time to understand) what you might be experiencing. In that situation, it would be infinitely better to default to the less desired, and often more difficult to perfect emotion of sympathy. And I believe that is the crux of the problem: sympathy is harder to do right – it takes more introspection and more time to truly understand what someone is experiencing. If we are struggling and we are going to receive sympathy, it better be done right.

No matter how much we analyze the similarities and differences between empathy and sympathy, or speculate on the appropriate and inappropriate times at which to use each sentiment, there is still no way to know if we’ve offered the right support. It is specific to each individual and each situation, so maybe the best approach is to just check in and make sure our attempts of empathy or sympathy are being interpreted the way we intend.

If we are ever capable of offering the appropriate kind of support, how does that relate to compassion? As the definition would suggest, compassion is characterized by the desire to help in alleviating someone’s suffering. We offer compassion in the simplest ways when we sit down to listen, or we extend our arms for a hug, or we just show up when we are least expected. Do we really need to sympathize (understand) or empathize (recognize) with the person in order to offer compassion. I’d argue that neither is really necessary in the simplest forms of compassion. However, it likely becomes impossible to offer deeper levels of compassion without an understanding or appreciation of the struggles one faces. And, like offering inappropriate empathy or misguided sympathy, compassionate actions based on a faulty understanding of the situation will only foster feelings of misinterpretation – and therefore isolation and disconnectedness.

As the recent receiver of misguided empathy, a lack of sympathy, and often insufficient compassion, I urge everyone to work a little harder to understand how you can improve your approach to, and delivery of, these three complicated levels of emotional support.

8 thoughts on “A Note on Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

  1. Good reminders.

    I got asked on an interview once what was the difference between empathy and sympathy. I think my answer was similar to what you described (directly relating vs. understanding) but still. I was definitely on the spot.

    I am sorry your friend is dealing with so much right now.

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  2. Funnily, I actually just finished writing a post of my own that mentions this subject. I’m too lazy to recap what I said and I’m late for work, so I’ll make you go read it yourself 😛

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  3. To me, empathy is personal and not something I can give to another. My sympathy and compassion may be enhanced if I also feel empathy for another, but we’re all different, and we perceive events differently, so we can never be sure we’re saying or doing the right thing. We can try, and hope that if nothing else, the person we’re giving our sympathy to will understand our intention is to show that we are sorry they are in a difficult situation.
    I don’t even know your friend, but the idea of what she has to do horrifies me.

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    1. I think you’re right. We can only do our best. In this instant, it really should be the thought that counts. I think, however, when we are on the receiving end, it is easy to forget how difficult it is to do “well.”

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  4. This line is completely inaccurate, just look at whales and dolphins, they actually have a higher capacity for empathy than we do. Their brains are much larger in the area related to empathy. Also, elephants empathize as well.

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