Empathy, Sympathy & Compassion: What’s the Difference?

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In daily life, you likely come across the words empathy, sympathy, and compassion all of the time. Whether you’re sharing sympathy after the passing of a loved one or wishing someone well, these emotions are a big part of the human experience. 

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Even though they’re used interchangeably, there are striking differences between the definitions of these words. They are easily mistaken as synonymous, but it’s essential that you recognize the key differences between these terms. We could all use a refresher on how to use these words. 

Knowing these differences helps you apply their meaning towards your own sympathy messages, experiences, and relationships. In this guide, we’ll explore the difference between the terms empathy, sympathy, and compassion.

What’s Empathy? 

First, let’s start with empathy. This is the word you likely hear the most often since it’s considered a very common emotion. Empathy is a type of feeling. In basic terms, it means you feel what another person feels. This has scientific explanations. While you can’t literally walk in another person’s footsteps, the mind has something called mirror neurons.

What are these special neurons? They’re a type of brain cell that responds equally to witnessing an action to actually performing it ourselves. That means when you see someone else experience something, you feel those same feelings even though it’s not happening to you. 

This is something you have certainly experienced in your own life. Whether you empathize with someone losing their job, receiving news of a loved one’s death, or experiencing a breakup, it’s easy to feel the emotions of others. Empathy isn’t something only reserved for negative feelings. You can also feel empathy when it comes to joy or happiness. Reading books on empathy helps bring this term to life. 

Examples of empathy

Imagine you witness someone getting their fingers slammed into a car door. Ouch, right? Even if you’ve never experienced this yourself, you still likely have a knee-jerk response of pain. Because everyone has felt pain in some shape or another, this evokes an empathy reaction. 

There are a lot of different ways we experience empathy. Some common ways are:

  • Tickles when you see a spider crawl up someone’s arm
  • Excitement about hearing someone’s trip stories
  • Sadness over a friend losing a parent
  • Elation when a sibling announces a pregnancy
  • Anger when a friend is fired from a job

Empathy is a common part of our daily lives. It’s so common, you might not even recognize when it’s happening! As humans, we use empathy to relate with others, and form valued relationships. 

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What Does Sympathy Mean?

Sympathy is often confused with empathy since they have similar meanings. The primary difference is that sympathy doesn’t involve feeling another person’s feelings. It’s a way to understand what someone else is feeling without feeling as though it’s also happening to you. 

Even though we can’t always understand exactly what someone’s going through, we can still recognize and acknowledge their feelings. One of the most common examples of this is sympathy messages. We extend sympathy messages to those we love when we want to acknowledge their feelings or experience. 

Examples of sympathy

There are a lot of ways we use sympathy in our day-to-day lives to feel closer to others. While you can’t always feel someone’s pain, you can make sure your loved ones know you’re aware of what they’re going through. Common examples of sympathy are:

  • Sending a sympathy card to a bereaved family after losing a loved one
  • Letting your friend know you’re sorry that they’re sick
  • Offering sympathy to someone after they lose their job

While not as powerful as empathy, sympathy is how humans communicate their feelings. It’s important to recognize that we can’t always empathize with the experiences of others, especially if these are things that haven’t happened to us personally. That being said, sympathy still brings us together. 

What Does It Mean to Show Compassion?

Compassion is something that you show through your actions. It’s a combination of both empathy and sympathy in many ways. If you’re acting compassionate, you feel the pain of someone else (empathy) and you recognize this pain (sympathy). In addition, compassion also means to act on these feelings. 

The root of the word compassion literally means “to suffer with” in Latin. When you’re acting with compassion, you’re not hiding away from someone’s pain. You’re taking real-life steps to remedy it, no matter how small.

In life, suffering is just one of the many realities. Shying away from this pain doesn’t bring any real relief. When you’re compassionate, you welcome this suffering and use it to evoke positivity. 

Examples of compassion

You see compassion all around you, even though it’s not always noticeable. We express our compassion in a lot of small ways, though some also express it in large ways. Acts of compassion aim to relieve the suffering of others, whether it’s in a whole group of people or a close friend. 

Here are some of the many ways we offer compassion:

  • Helping a friend arrange the funeral of a deceased loved one. 
  • Bringing food to a relative’s home when they’re sick. 
  • A local business making a donation to the community. 
  • A church handing out food to the homeless. 
  • A school teacher coming in early to tutor students. 

Compassion comes in all shapes and sizes. It doesn’t fit any particular mold, but it does make the world a better place. Putting your empathy and sympathy to good use is the best way to make a difference, no matter how big or small. What are some ways you’re compassionate?

Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Compassion: 3 Differences to Note

You can think of these words as close cousins. They’re related, but that doesn’t mean they have the same parents. Each word evokes different feelings and actions, so note these differences below. 

1. Action vs. feelings

Compassion implies action. That’s why it’s often referred to as an “act of compassion” rather than a “feeling of compassion.” On the other hand, empathy and sympathy are feelings.

They affect how we feel. We express both empathy and sympathy to others, but it doesn’t necessarily mean any action comes from these feelings. 

2. Feeling “with” rather than “for”

Another key difference is the distinction between feeling “with” someone rather than feeling “for” them. With compassion and empathy, you feel “for” someone. You understand what they’re going through as though it’s something you experienced yourself. In the case of compassion, you are driven to act on these feelings. 

Sympathy, on the other hand, is when you feel “with” someone. Because of your closeness, you acknowledge their feelings. You don’t deeply feel their experience, but you do understand that they’re going through something. In this sense, sympathy is a more detached experience. 

3. Positive vs. negative

Last but not least, there is a difference in the positive vs. negative connotation for all of these terms. Empathy is often associated with both positive and negative feelings. For example, you feel excited when your friends get married, but you’re also sad when your cousin loses their beloved pet. Empathy is a two-way street. 

On the other hand, compassion and sympathy typically only have negative connotations. While compassion is occasionally applied to positive situations, this is unusual. It’s much more likely to express sympathy after something sad or tragic occurs. In addition, compassion is usually extended in negative situations. 

Express Yourself with the Right Words

Sometimes it’s hard to put our feelings and experiences in words. With terms like empathy, sympathy, and compassion, the lines are blurry. How do you distinguish the way you feel in each situation? This guide above helps make sense of some of the most complex human feelings and experiences. 

Whether you’re a naturally empathetic person or you’re driven by compassion for others, lean into these feelings. They bring us closer as humans, and they’re the greatest connectors we know of. Think of compassion as the bridge between both emotions and actions, whereas empathy lets us walk in the shoes of others. While sympathy might only be reserved for sad situations, it reminds us that we’re not alone. All of these words (and the meanings behind them) play a huge role in the human experience. 


Sources

  1. “Compassion (n.).” Online Etymology Dictionary. Etymonline.com
  2. Winerman, Lea. “The mind’s mirror.” American Psychological Association. October 2005. APA.org

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