Wednesday 11 October 2023

The Empathy Factor: Exploring Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

In this post my aim is to explore how sympathy, empathy, and compassion relate to one another. I began with a quick search through the book Fran and I wrote about our friendship. I was surprised to discover the word sympathy doesn’t appear even once in the book’s 259 pages. Sympathetic occurs three times. Empathy twice. Compassion / compassionate appears thirteen times. It’s clear which feels most relevant to us, but that didn’t help me define or differentiate between them. I looked online next. Two definitions caught my attention. The first is from an article by Sara Schairer.

While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

The second is from a post by Olivia Guy-Evans.

Simply put, sympathy is feeling for someone, while empathy is feeling with someone.

The idea of feeling for someone finds an echo in a quotation by Audrey Hepburn, although she equated it with empathy rather than sympathy.

Nothing is more important than empathy for another human being’s suffering. Nothing. Not a career, not wealth, not intelligence, certainly not status. We have to feel for one another if we’re going to survive with dignity.

It was then that I remembered the excellent short animated video on sympathy and empathy by Brené Brown. I can’t hope to capture her brevity, wisdom, and humour, so do take a few minutes to watch the video or read the transcript. There’s one part I find particularly relevant.

I always think of empathy as this kind of sacred space when someone is kind of in a deep hole, and they shout out from the bottom and they say, I’m stuck. It’s dark. I’m overwhelmed. And then we look and we say, hey, I’m down. I know what it’s like down here, and you’re not alone. Sympathy is, oh, it’s bad, uh-huh. No. Do you want a sandwich?

I love this description of empathy because it’s how Fran has spoken about our friendship.

[Marty] did not reach down a hand to pull me up from my dark hole. He came down and sat with me while I began rethreading, bit by bit, what could be mended. He let me baby step on his feet until I could dance on my own. To him it wasn’t about getting me to climb out. It was about being with me in all of it.

It’s tempting to think of sympathy as just a less intense form of empathy, but to me they’re fundamentally different. Rather than relating as equals, sympathy expresses sorrow or pity from a position of safety and disengagement. We might offer help or advice, but it’s likely to be on our terms and — like the sandwich in Brené Brown’s video — not necessarily what’s needed. Any sentence that begins with the words “Well, at least...” is an expression of sympathy. Brené Brown has some excruciating examples in her video, but it’s not hard to think of others. It’s something I catch myself doing, even though I know how insensitive and distancing it can be. If you find you’re about to respond to someone with an “at least” — stop and reframe what you were about to say.

In some ways, the difference between sympathy and empathy echoes the difference between worrying about someone and caring about them. Sympathy and worry are fear-based, disconnecting, and rarely helpful. Caring and empathy foster engagement and focus on the needs of the person sharing with us. In Brené Brown’s words, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.” I found a great discussion of these concepts in a post by Jessica Schubert. It includes the following summary, attributed to Susan Davis.

I’m sorry you are suffering

I can imagine what this feels like

You are suffering and I will do everything I can to alleviate it
Connected and action oriented.

Keen to learn what these words mean to others, I posted a request on social media.Here are the responses, with minor edits for clarity.

To me, sympathy is when someone is hurting, like a loss of a dear one, and you feel for them. Empathy is when the hurt goes deeper and you actually feel it, too. That is when I am likely to say something along the lines of “I am so sorry. I wish I had the right words to comfort you, and I know I don’t, but I hurt with you and I’m here for you any way I can help.” Compassion is trying to understand the other’s viewpoint, why they act as they do, things like that. If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.
— Beth

I’d tend to agree with Beth, although I think to be truly empathetic I think it’s necessary for you to have been through something similar so that you know the pain the other person is going through. Compassion, I think means taking it to the next stage, actively wanting to do something to help someone you have sympathy “for” or empathy “with”.
— David

For me, empathy is when I can identify to feelings and unmet needs you have. Compassion is when I feel for you. Sympathy is when I feel pity for you. I do not enjoy pity.
— Cynthia

Sympathy is when you feel sorry about something that has happened to someone. Empathy is when it has happened to you too. Compassion is when you understand what a person does because they’re suffering.
— Janet

I’ve just got back from a North East Humanist talk about empathy. The speaker was a Durham University researcher and placed empathy within a teamwork idea, both how it evolved in primates and as it is expressed in humans. That made sense to me. Sympathy and compassion would be part of that empathy sense us humans have. She said that my problem solving because I care behaviour is empathy all the way.
— Paul

I don’t know, but I always thought it’s because of the bipolar disorder that I can feel when others are hurting and it causes me to hurt deeply. Because of our intense feelings, emotions and such. I think they are important for being humane. I believe sympathy, empathy, and compassion are different from each other, but connected maybe.
— Chris

Sympathy is feeling for that person’s unfortunate situation and expressing your concern to them. Empathy is putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. Compassion is having the grace to put others before yourself.
— Lisa

Empathy is when you can put yourself in the person’s shoes and you can relate and feel what the other person is going through. You express genuine care and love towards this person by what you say, and how you say things is important.
— Carol

The final contribution was from mental health blogger Aimee Wilson.

Since experiencing a trauma when I was younger and then having my mental health deteriorate so drastically, my eyes have really been opened to the importance of empathy, compassion, and sympathy.

Firstly – empathy – I’ve learnt that no one can completely, 100% understand someone else’s experience, no matter how similar what two people have been through might be. This was a hard realisation because it made it incredibly difficult to fight the notion that I was completely alone in the world. Through my mental health recovery, I’ve grown to appreciate that this also means no one has had to experience all the hardship you’ve gone through. For me, that brought enormous feelings of relief. Recognising no one will understand what I’ve experienced also means that some people (including professionals who should arguably “know better”) can still get things wrong. They can say or do the wrong thing. That might not happen if they were able to 100% appreciate my trauma and mental illness and symptoms.

Secondly – sympathy – in finally telling people about the trauma, some of the most frequent responses were completely centred around sympathy. I immediately recognised that this was a totally understandable response because it should (because it isn’t for everyone) really be human nature that if someone is upset and has experienced something horrible, you feel sorry for them. It’s the “nice” thing to do a lot of the time and is almost always considered to have no bad intentions behind it. I kept this in mind when I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising. It’s helped me to avoid finding my relationships with others decline.

Finally – compassion – this is one of my favourite qualities for a person to have! I feel that it takes a lot of experience and a very genuinely thoughtful person to have the ability to show compassion, recognising that you can’t completely empathise with someone and will never fully understand what they have gone through, but wanting to reassure, support, help, and comfort them regardless.

I’m grateful to everyone who contributed. There’s consensus on many points, but some interesting differences too. Beth mentions sympathy in the context of loss. It’s probably obvious, but I’d not thought of it that way. We send sympathy cards (not empathy cards or compassion cards) to people who have been bereaved. In doing so, we acknowledge their loss without necessarily feeling it ourselves. I also agree with Beth’s statement “If you have compassion, I don’t think you can have judgement.”

I think judgement is the main thing that separates sympathy from both empathy and compassion. Consciously or not, with sympathy we are relating to the other person as different to or separate from us. Cynthia picks up on this when she equates sympathy with pity. We don’t feel pity for equals. Aimee agrees that sympathy rarely comes across as helpful. (“I often felt someone’s sympathy was condescending or patronising.”) She’s able to set this aside, however, reminding herself that there are rarely any bad intentions. Sympathy is the “nice” or socially conditioned response to someone’s pain or distress.

David and Janet suggest empathy is grounded in shared experience. This idea is echoed by others, including Lisa and Carol who express it as putting yourself in the other person’s shoes. I struggle with this (whilst not necessarily disagreeing) because I have little experience that compares with what Fran and many of my other friends have lived through. I used to feel it left me poorly equipped to offer help or support. It’s something I’m still working on. I’m reassured by Aimee’s take on empathy, which is that no one can fully understand what someone’s going though, no matter how similar their experiences might be. This could be seen as a get-out clause for someone like me; an excuse for messing up from time to time. On the contrary, I believe it calls us to focus on what we do have in common. I might never have experienced exactly what you’re going through, but I have been vulnerable, lost, and afraid. I can meet you in that place.

Most contributors expressed compassion in terms of understanding the other person at a deeply human level and wanting to help in ways that are meaningful to them. I’m reminded of a maxim of Fran’s that I find helpful:

Give people what they need. Not what you need to give them.

A sense of shared humanity is also important. Fran and I have a no pedestals rule that reminds us we serve ourselves and each other best when we relate as equals. The idea is expressed beautifully in a quotation by Brené Brown from her book Rising Strong.

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.

In this post I’ve explored my understanding of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. I’ve also shared what these mean to a number of people who responded to my invitation on social media. What are your experiences of sympathy, empathy, and compassion? How they relate to one another? Which do you like to receive, or feel most at ease offering to others? Fran and I would love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.


Photo by Kenny Eliason at Unsplash.


1 comment:

  1. I love this post and I think many people, outside of the mental health community, and within it could truly benefit from knowing the differences between the three words. First, I like what Aimee Wilson said about the fact that having the expectation of being completely understood by another is probably expecting too much. Everyone experiences the world differently and I think a big part of compassion and empathy is acknowledging this. It’s a first step; maybe. I think our willingness to try to understand others has its roots in both empathy and compassion. Sympathizing, as Marty said, is distant and and can very often feel like condescension at times. In fact, I feel like it’s also a bit disingenuous sometimes. When you put the words compassion and empathy together, there’s a noun change if you will. Empathy and compassion leaves room for a “we-centered” conversation and sympathy is dangling out there as an “I” statement. There’s nothing wrong with “I “statements, generally. But when it comes to empathy and compassion, “ we” statements help us to feel less alone. And that’s a very nice gift. In fact, it seems like a “we” centered society is much nicer than a “me” centered one. I’m not sure I’m making any sense. I’d rather be treated with empathy and compassion, then with sympathy. As someone stated above, sympathy can also sound like judgment, which doesn’t feel good. Thank you for this, Marty and friends. It was very insightful. 😊