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

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When something bad happens to another person, what’s your first reaction? 

You may feel sympathetic, empathetic, or compassionate toward them. Confused? You aren’t alone. These three terms all define ways you may respond to someone’s suffering, but each one has distinct differences. 

Jump ahead to these sections:

Once you understand more about each of these responses, you’ll know the effect they have and why it matters. Here we’ll review sympathy, empathy, and compassion with examples of each. 

Then we’ll discuss the key differences and some similarities of these emotional reactions.

Overview: Difference Between Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion 

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion all start in a similar way. You see someone going through a difficult experience, and your feelings kick in. So what's different about each one? It all depends on what happens after your first reaction. 

  • Is it a passing emotion?
  • Is it something you can relate to?
  • Or is it something you can help with?

Your response becomes progressively more involved and action-oriented in this order:

Sympathy 

  • Emotional reaction only 
  • Based on your viewpoint 
  • No follow-up action
  • Sympathy can feel like pity, which doesn't seem helpful

Empathy  

  • Emotion followed by an attempt to understand and relate to their suffering 
  • Common emotional experience may be expressed to the other person 
  • Emotional process may be kept private
  • Other person can feel validated and understood

Compassion 

  • Emotional reaction at first
  • Attempt to understand and relate to their suffering
  • Step back from the emotions to evaluate how to help
  • Take action to help relieve the person's suffering or improve their situation 
  • Other person may feel validated, understood, and helped in practical ways
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What Does Sympathy Mean?

Sympathy is an emotional reaction of pity triggered by someone else's suffering. You may feel especially sympathetic if their suffering seems unfair. Sympathy is an immediate response without deeper thought or personal reflection. And while sympathy gives you a brief emotional connection to the suffering you notice, that's as far as it goes. 

If your reaction stops at sympathy, it means you take no action or consideration beyond your feelings. Sympathy is generally not helpful because it's an entirely passive experience. And when someone realizes another person is taking pity on them, it can feel demoralizing or patronizing. 

Examples of Sympathy 

  • While scrolling through your social media feeds, you notice pictures of a lost dog. The owner has added comments to the post pleading for people to help find their dog. You have an immediate reaction of concern and sadness. After a few moments, you scroll past the picture. 
  • As you drive to work, you notice a homeless person with a sign that says, "I need food." You see their dirty clothing and makeshift sign, feeling sadness and a twinge of guilt as you drive by. 

What Does Empathy Mean? 

Empathy is an emotional response that goes a step beyond sympathy. You may feel sympathy at first, but you then try to understand what the other individual is going through. You extend yourself into their experience and acknowledge their situation. 

When you empathize with someone, you do several things that help them feel validated and understood.

  • You share their emotional experience. 
  • You put yourself in their position and imagine what that may be like for yourself. 
  • You allow yourself to feel uncomfortable and consider their perspective. 
  • Putting yourself in their position shows that you want to learn more about them and their experience. 

The downside of empathy is that you can become emotionally overwhelmed by stepping into this experience. This may not be helpful if the person is looking to you for a calm presence or guidance.

Empathy also keeps you somewhat removed from the other person's situation. You feel with them but don't necessarily take action to help. The exception to this is when you communicate your empathy. This extra step can be supportive and validating. You don't attempt to improve their situation, but you do acknowledge their emotions. 

In some situations, there may be few ways to improve their situation. When a person’s loved one dies, you can do some practical tasks to make their life a little easier. But nobody can bring their loved one back. Ultimately, the reason for suffering can't be resolved or reversed. In this case, expressing empathy and offering practical help can be equally supportive. 

Examples of Empathy

  • You learn that your best friend's mother has just died. You think about your friend and her family, imagining what it may be like to lose a parent. You reach out and let your friend know how sad you feel for them and that you're thinking of them.
  • Your brother tells you that his wife just lost her job. At that moment, you get a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. You know your brother and his wife relied on both incomes, and you sense concern growing as he tells you about it. You comfort him by telling him how sorry you are and hope she can find a new job soon.

What Does Compassion Mean? 

Compassion is different from sympathy and empathy while having some of the beneficial aspects of both. Compassion requires some emotional connection to the other person. You can feel the difficulty of their experience and want to understand what they are feeling like. However, being compassionate also means keeping some emotional distance to avoid feeling overwhelmed. 

From there, compassion involves one key element that sympathy and empathy lack: action. Compassion involves practical steps that could relieve a person's suffering. You are proactive and don't wait for the person to ask for help or support. You may feel called to help others in this way, knowing you can make a difference in their lives. 

A person receiving your compassionate help may feel understood and validated. They may also see that you are making a specific effort to help them. You stay emotionally distant enough to be calm and confident as you offer help.

Examples of compassion

  • A severe storm has just hit your community. You know that some of your neighbors are elderly, and others have small children. Knowing how difficult it may be for them to clean up the mess from the storm, you and your family discuss ways to help your neighbors. You go up and down the neighboring streets, knocking on doors and asking what you can do to help.
  • Your child's teacher just lost her husband in a car accident. It's the middle of the school year, and she has young children at home. As soon as you hear the news, you know she will need all the help she can get. You and a few other parents communicate with each other and create a plan for donating meals to the family. You reach out on social media so other parents can learn about your efforts and help, too.

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

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion all relate to your emotional reaction when you see suffering. But there are a few key differences that distinguish each of these responses. We'll review these responses in more detail and compare them to each other.

Reaction vs. action 

Each of the responses we've discussed begins with a reaction. You sense a person suffering, and you feel an emotional response. It's what happens from there that matters.

  • When your experience begins and ends with feeling sad for someone, that's sympathy. Your emotion comes and goes without any further action. 
  • Empathy can be somewhat different. You react and then step into their suffering. You may keep this experience to yourself, or you might share it with the other person. Often, sharing your empathy can feel supportive and helpful. 
  • Compassion is how the real impact occurs. You can move through your emotions and start thinking strategically. It doesn't matter if your help is small or significant. The critical difference is that you do more than just share their emotions. You make an effort to change that person's experience and relieve or prevent suffering. 

Distance vs. connection

Your emotional connection to a person's suffering varies with each response. 

  • With sympathy, you remain the farthest away. You have an emotional reaction and make no effort to either communicate with the other person or help them. 
  • When you respond with empathy, you get closer to the person's emotional experience. You may even reach out and share your reaction with them, leading you to participate in their suffering. For example, if you both lost a beloved teacher to cancer, you may share mutual empathy when you see each other. 
  • With compassion, you take the connection to another level. Your deep understanding of the person's suffering fuels your actions. When you actively help them, you step into their story.

Assumptions vs. understanding 

Another key difference with these responses is how deeply you try to understand their emotions and experience. 

  • With sympathy, you react from your viewpoint and don't develop your response beyond that. You make assumptions about the other individual, which leads you to feel sorry for them. 
  • When you empathize with someone, you put aside your viewpoint and step into theirs. You may or may not be accurate, but you try to consider what they may be going through. 
  • With compassion, you try to relate to the person's experience and situation. Your understanding develops more as you find out how you can help them. As you extend your support, you get feedback from them about what's working. This information allows you to develop an even deeper understanding of their needs.

Your Response to Suffering

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are all ways you may respond to someone else’s suffering. Empathy and compassion can bring you closer to others you care about. But sympathy is a common response, too. You can’t emotionally invest yourself in every difficult situation you encounter. When you know more about each response, you can respond in the way that means the most to you.   


Sources:
  1. Bohn, Katie. “The Empathy Option: The Science of How and Why We Choose to Be Empathetic.” December 9, 2019, news.psu.edu.
  2. GreaterGood.Berkeley.edu. “Empathy Defined.” Greater Good Science Center, greatergood.berkeley.edu.
  3. MedicalCenter.Virginia.edu. “Empathy and Compassion.” UVA Health Medical Center, medicalcenter.virginia.edu.

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