• Susan Stubbings

Is there a difference between Sympathy, Empathy & Compassion?


EMPATHY- Also known as ‘frame of reference', empathy is being able to put our self in another’s shoes – that is trying to understand the feelings, thoughts and experience of the other person as they see things from their point of view not our personal way of feeling, thinking and experiencing.



Empathy is distinct from sympathy


Sympathy - when we sympathise with others, we often feel pity or sorrow ‘for’ them for example, our personal feelings may be evoked, we begin to feel sorry for ourselves. We feel ‘bad’ for them and our self at the same time – we don’t know what it ‘feels like’ to be the other person experiencing in those moments. Connection has become weakened from the other when we think about our self.


Sympathy can become fully with our self for example, when a child dies people cross the road to avoid speaking to the parents a) because they don’t know what to say b) ask self “what if this was my child? c) such a horrible thing to happen I don’t want to think about it! Sympathy concerns itself with feeling ‘sorry’, ‘regretful’ or ‘disappointment’ for another; it involves a ‘negative evaluation’ of a situation.


Pity is something most people don’t want from another, it implies failure, a sense of superiority or contempt i.e. “it didn’t happen to me, phew”, “there there, poor you”! Pity distances us from others and give us a sense and belief that we and others didn’t ‘deserve’ this fate. Life or death is neither deserving or not deserved i.e. ‘earned’ life and what happens in life just is. Life and death go hand in hand and are part of the human condition!



Empathy – is the ability to imaginatively put ourselves in the shoes of the other ‘as if’ we are walking in their shoes without losing the ‘as if’ feeling, thought or experiencing. Imaginatively experiencing the others emotions, ideas or opinions without owning them as our own; ‘feeling into’ the others inner world. With empathy we are trying to get inside the others emotion, thoughts and experiencing, understand their subjective reality and how they are feeling without any thought, feeling, reflection or flashback to our own personal way of being or what we have experienced personally in the past. If we lose the ‘as if’ then we are ‘identifying’ with the other rather than empathising!


Healthy empathy has several facets and requires the complement of ‘benevolent sympathy’. We can feel sorrow, sadness, upset, disappointed etc ‘with’ another without feeling pity or sorry for. Empathy uses a ‘positive evaluation’. It connects us to others because our attention towards them, it evokes ‘being with’, alongside’ and connected to the other. We might ask our self “what can I do to support this person”? If we feel sympathy alone, we may walk away unable to function or we may want to help and try to do so, but our helping turns into no help because we ‘take over’ not allowing autonomy, giving advice or telling them what to do!


Empathy is a process of vicariously, mindfully ‘feeling with’, tolerant, considered, selfless, warm-hearted, loving kindness and intention, flowing with the others’ experiencing moment by moment and commands an understanding and full acceptance of our human condition.



Empathy is - the cognitive condition we ‘choose mindfully’ to relate with and to others.


Sympathy is - the emotional response we ‘feel’ for others which is most often not chosen but we do have choice over how we use the feelings when evoked.


Compassion is one step further than both sympathy and empathy it evokes a desire to 'do' something for another to help and support them. Compassion is made up of both benevolent sympathy and empathy, i.e. cognitive and feeling worlds; and the added step of motivation behind our emotional element of 'suffering with'  and wanting to support and alleviate another's suffering.  By sensitively putting ourselves in another shoes 'feeling with', 'feeling for' and the desire to 'feeling as' brings with it a sense of equality which brings depth, vigor and passion to help and support elevation of the others suffering without owning it for ourselves. 


Compassion motivates people to help and support the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional suffering of others.  We also need to be compassionate towards our self, to experience self compassion by directing inwardly benevolent sympathy and empathy.  Whilst at the same time 'do' something which is kind to our self at times of difficulty.  To accept our self and to act in a way that is self soothing and affirming instead of punishing, criticising or harshly judging our self.  A positive question to ask our self at these times is "what would I say to my friend if he or she was experiencing this same thing"? Showing our self compassion is treating ourselves like our best friend.  Accepting we are human beings doing the best we can and that we can all make mistakes.


Communicating our empathic understanding sensitively ‘seeing things through another’s eyes’ means laying aside personal views, values and beliefs to be able to enter their experiencing, communicating our understanding with words e.g. ‘that sounds like’, “I hear”, “What I saw when you said that was”, “feels like”, “it seems like you’re”, ‘when you said that I felt’, ‘I can hear in your voice that ….’, ‘it is clear that you felt, thought, sensed ….’, ‘somehow through all of this you keep going’, ‘I’m sensing ….’. When we use ‘I’m sensing it is usually because as the supporter we honed into our intuition and we’re not sure if it is correct for this client however, check it out with the client because more often than not our ‘gut’ feeling is correct e.g. I wonder if ……………………..

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