What's the Difference Between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion?
You have empathy for the homeless man on the corner, but does that also mean you have compassion for him? You send a sympathy card when someone dies, but why isn’t it a compassion card? Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are three words that many use interchangeably. It’s a legitimate mistake, because these words can be confusing.
While these words are close cousins, they are not synonymous with one another. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.
Let’s unpack this more.
Empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels. Thanks to what researchers have deemed “mirror neurons,” empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw me slam a car door on my fingers, you may feel pain in your fingers as well. That feeling means your mirror neurons have kicked in.
You may not always automatically feel how another is feeling, and that’s when you need to rely on your imagination. You have most likely heard the phrase, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” That’s the other route to empathy.
For example, perhaps you saw me slam my fingers in a car door, but you didn’t automatically feel that pain. Instead, you can imagine what it might be like to have your fingers slammed in a door, and that may allow you to feel my pain.
By the way, empathy isn’t just for unpleasant feelings. You can feel empathy when you see someone happy, too. Isn’t it great when someone walks in the room smiling, and that makes you smile?
It’s not easy to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference is that when you have sympathy, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, you may not be able to viscerally feel that person’s pain. However, you can employ your cognitive skills to understand that your friend is sad.
It makes sense, then, to send sympathy cards when you understand that someone is suffering. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want them to know you are aware of their suffering.