Sympathy vs Empathy vs Compassion – Insight For Living Well

The terms empathy, sympathy, and compassion get used a lot in daily conversation almost interchangeably, but each term means something slightly different. What do each of these terms mean and why is it important to know the slight differences?

Empathy, sympathy, and compassion often feel related, here is how we can define each. Empathy is feeling what someone else is feeling, sympathy is understanding what someone else is feeling, and compassion is wanting to relieve another person’s suffering.

It is easy to put empathy, sympathy, and compassion into hierarchical terms, pitting them against each other: compassion is the best, sympathy is the worst. However, having a better understanding of what each of these terms means can help us understand where and when to apply them. 

Exploring Empathy vs. Sympathy vs. Compassion

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is being able to say, “hey, I know exactly how you’re feeling. I’ve felt it too.” It is more than just understanding how someone feels, as is the case with sympathy, rather it is feeling the emotion with the person experiencing it.

Empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and truly sense and feel what they are. It requires knowing someone well enough to understand their emotions and thoughts and feel them as your own. Those who are empathetic can see things from another perspective without compromising their own values and beliefs.

Some people have empathy because they have experienced the same situation, others just feel what others feel because they can imagine how they would feel in that situation. Either way, empathy is a way of taking on the emotions you see in others. 

Woman rests head on someone's shoulder -  Sympathy Vs Empathy Vs Compassion - Gone Minimal
Woman rests head on someone’s shoulder

What Is an Example of Empathy?

One way we feel empathy is through mutual excitement. When your friend gets the promotion they’ve been working hard for and you feel just as excited for them as they feel themselves. We also can feel sadness together when we see someone we love experience loss.

What’s the Opposite of Empathy?

Apathy is the opposite of empathy. Apathy is being unable or unwilling to feel what another person is feeling, or feel much of anything at all. 

How Is Empathy Important?

Empathy is important in how we relate to others. It allows us to understand our friends and strangers more readily. When we can put ourselves in the place of someone else and know how they feel, we are able to build stronger relationships with others. 

Is It Bad to Lack Empathy?

Lacking empathy on its own is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it can be supplemented by sympathy or compassion. You don’t need to feel exactly how someone is feeling to help them. Just being able to understand why they feel a certain way and being willing to help them when they need it is enough. 

Can You Love without Empathy?

There are quite a few dissenting opinions on whether you can love without empathy. In my opinion, it is possible. If I am having a stressful day or a lot of anxiety, I don’t need my partner to feel how I’m feeling, sympathy or compassion will do just fine.

If my partner can understand what I’m feeling and we can work together to remedy it, then that’s fine by me. However, this is me: I can see love working without empathy in some capacity. However it is truly up to the individual- it can certainly be frustrating to know your partner will never feel how you feel about certain things but if they’re willing to try to understand and help perhaps that is enough. 

Can You Lose Empathy?

Empathy is a skill and a practice like running or lifting weights, so if you find yourself struggling to empathize with others it may because you have been draining your care wells. Just like if you run 10 miles every day and all of a sudden you lose the motivation, you might just need a break for a little bit before starting up again.

People who work in care and hospitality fields tend to experience the most empathy fatigue because so much of their daily energy is spent on empathizing with others. This is why self-care is so important because it is effectively empathizing with your personal needs.

What Is Empathy in Communication?

Empathy can be integral to good communication in a number of ways. Largely empathy, sympathy and compassion can all be traced back to observation. Paying attention to how people are looking, acting, and reacting to what others are saying is a great way to begin empathizing with others in conversation. Having empathy for who you are speaking with can make for more productive communication.

How Can You Develop Your Empathy in Everyday Life?

There are so many ways to develop a stronger sense of empathy that are accessible: empathy is after all, a practice. 

Be CuriousOne easy step to take is allowing yourself to be curious. Be aggressively curious, ask people you meet questions about their life, their hobbies, their interests, really get to know the people you talk to because the more you know about them the easier it is to understand their emotions. 
Listen ActivelyRelated to being curious, practice active listening. Sometimes we get caught up thinking about how we want to respond to what someone is saying rather than really listening to what they have to say. The golden rule of relationships: listen to others how you would want to be listened to.
Read, a LotIronically, you don’t need to surround yourself with a crowd of people or be constantly conversing in order to build empathy. Reading is one of the first ways we develop the skill: it allows us to step into someone else’s perspective for a few hundred pages at a time and just experience a bit of their life.

You know when you read and you feel everything the narrator is feeling, you understand their frustrations, you love who they love, you cry when they’re lost. That’s empathy, my friend!

What Mental Disorder Causes Lack of Empathy?

There are a few mental illnesses that cause a lack of empathy: Psychopathy, narcissistic personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder, some forms of autism, and more.  All of these disorders, too, exist on a spectrum of empathy: no two people are the same and some may have more empathy than others. However that is also true with neurotypical brains as well. 

Two men having a conversation - Sympathy Vs Empathy Vs Compassion - Gone Minimal
Two men having a conversation

Insights into Sympathy

What Is the Definition of Sympathy?

Sympathy can be defined as understanding how someone else feels without stepping in their shoes. It differs from empathy in that empathy relies on feeling what others are feeling or having the same emotional reaction, whereas sympathy is simply understanding what someone else is feeling.

What Does It Mean to Have Sympathy?

Having sympathy means developing an understanding of what someone else is feeling and experiencing. We might not feel directly those same feelings, though we understand what they’re going through and are able to lend support and care based on that understanding.

Is Sympathy Part of Empathy?

Sympathy and empathy both come from the greek root, Pathos which means suffering or eoption so it can be easy to conflate the terms. Ultimately however, they are separate terms with their own meanings.  In addition, you can empathize with the entire spectrum of emotions whereas with sympathy, we relate it to feelings of sadness, grief, and loss. 

How Do You Show Sympathy?

What separates sympathy from empathy is that sympathy can be shown from afar. Common ways you can show sympathy is with cards, letters, gifts, and phone calls.

Why Is Sympathy A Bad Thing?

Sympathy is not on its own a bad thing, but it can often feel very surface level and shallow. Sympathy can often look and feel like pity rather than true understanding. Seeing as sympathy is feeling for rather than feeling with, it can feel more distant than empathy. One can express sympathy with a card or a gift but empathy is more difficult to feel when far away.

Features of Compassion

What Does Compassion Mean?

Compassion is empathy and sympathy with an added call to action. It is being willing to alieve the pain one feels by lending them care, support, and encouragement when needed based on their particular situation.

What Is True Compassion?

True compassion is the ability to combine empathy, sympathy, and compassion’s call to action.  You can understand how someone is feeling, feel it with them, and move to alleviate the pain or sorrow they feel. 

What Are the Characteristics of Compassion?

Compassion is characterized by the recognition that someone is suffering or in pain, being emotionally affected by their struggle, wanting them to feel relief from their pain, and being ready to take action to help relieve that pain. 

What Are Examples of Compassion?

Anything you can do to make someone’s day a little nicer is an example of compassion. Watching a movie with your friend who just got dumped, calling your mom out of the blue cause you know she misses your voice, ordering dinner to be delivered to your friend who’s been buying cheap food to save up for a vacation, all of these are examples of gestures of compassion.

Compassion doesn’t always have to be gifts though, it can be doing dishes when you know your partner always does them, or spending extra time with your friends. Anything that takes a burden off someone’s shoulders or brightens their day is an example of compassion.

Why Is Compassion So Important?

Compassion doesn’t have to be big gestures saved for those who are suffering a great deal, it can be anything you do that makes someone’s day a little easier. Remember the last time you were having a rough day and a friend sent you a weird and hilarious youtube video of a cat because they know cat videos make you laugh?

Or a coworker remembered what kind of coffee you like so they grabbed you a cup when they bought their morning coffee? Or when a random stranger stopped you in the street to tell you how cool they think your shoes look? Even if none of them knew you were having a rough day, those little kind actions still helped to brighten it. 

How Is Compassion Related to Happiness?

Performing acts of compassion for others feels good to do, it makes us just as happy to be compassionate as when someone shows us compassion! Putting a smile on someone’s face when you recognize how hard they’ve been working recently and tell them they’re doing a great job, donating to charities that mean a great deal to you.

It feels good when someone shows us compassion and it feels good to show others compassion. When we can be compassionate to everyone, even those we don’t know well, we know two things for sure: we feel happier, and we helped someone else feel happier. 

What Makes a Compassionate Person?

A compassionate person feels both empathy and sympathy for someone’s suffering and is willing to help relieve that suffering. Anyone can show compassion if they can empathize with others and sympathize with their situation.

How Do You Show Care and Compassion?

Compassion can be shown in a myriad of ways. It can be small, helpful gestures, or by really going out of your own way to help someone else. Choosing how to show compassion often depends on the situation, you wouldn’t want to give a grand gesture like a bouquet of 1,000 roses to a random person who held the door for you once, nor would you want to give a dollar to someone who bought you dinner once.

Being compassionate means being empathetic to what someone needs to relieve their suffering. Especially with those you are close with, it is worthwhile talking about what would make them feel better when they’re in pain.

Some people like distractions like funny movies, some people want the company of a friend to listen, some just want a quiet shoulder to cry on. How you show compassion and care absolutely depends on being empathetic to the needs of others.

Two women embracing - Sympathy Vs Empathy Vs Compassion - Gone Minimal
Two women embracing

Is Compassion a Skill or Quality?

Compassion, like drawing, playing piano, riding a bike, is a skill not a quality, and like any skill, compassion can be learned and improved upon at any time in your life. Just like playing an instrument, the more you practice compassion, the more it becomes second nature as you get better and better at showing others you care.

Is Compassion a Strength?

Compassion is absolutely a strength of character. It certainly isn’t a weakness to be able to help others who need it and you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who thought it was–Ebenezer Scrooge maybe? Point being, compassion is a good quality to have and it’s a worthwhile skill to practice. 

Is Compassion a Leadership Quality?

A good leader is one who helps people on their team reach their goals for the betterment of them all. Compassion is a good quality for a leader to have because when a person in charge knows how to help those they are leading, they can help the team be successful. Afterall, a leader is only as good as those they lead so if their team is struggling, the leader too is struggling. 

What Is a Compassionate Love?

Compassionate love means knowing when your partner needs help and knowing how to help them. Compassionate love requires empathy, sympathy, and communication. To be a successful partner to the one you love, you need to know how they communicate pain, this is where empathy and sympathy come in. “I’m fine,” your partner tells you after they lost the promotion they worked so hard for.

But you sympathize with how much work they put in to try to get that promotion, and you feel disappointed for them and with them. You know they’re not fine like they say so now you ask how you can help and what they need from you to feel better. Compassionate love comes from care, it comes from empathizing with them, and sympathizing with them.

Can You Have Love Without Compassion?

Love without compassion is not as possible as love without empathy. Love without empathy is possible if you can still have sympathy and compassion, however to have love without compassion is to subsequently have love without empathy and sympathy. Love without compassion looks and feels selfish, and not well communicated. 

Is Feeling Sorry for Someone the Same as Compassion?

Feeling sorry for someone is more like sympathy than compassion. What sets compassion apart from sympathy is the call to action, and the need to relieve suffering from another person. Symply feeling sorry for someone isn’t enough to make them feel better, and therefore is not the same as compassion.

What Do You Call Someone Who Has No Compassion?

A person who has the ability to empathize but chooses not to have compassion, is someone who has not figured out yet how to figure out compassion. It is easy to pass judgement on those who have no compassion for others but there can be a lot of reasons people don’t know how to be compassionate. So a person who has no compassion is a person that needs help to build that skill. 

Comparing Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion

What Is the Difference Between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion?

Generally speaking, the difference between these three traits is that empathy is feeling with someone else, sympathy is understanding why someone feels a certain way, and compassion is acting to relieve a person’s pain. 

Which Is Better Compassion or Empathy?

Empathy and compassion are both important to being a good, well rounded person but neither is better as long as you have the other. Empathy without compassion can feel distant to the person you are trying to empathize with. Feeling what they feel without an attempt to remedy their pain only makes both of you feel sad.

However, compassion without empathy can feel one-sided. Trying to ease someone’s suffering without understanding what they’re going through really doesn’t benefit either party. Therefore neither compassion nor empathy is better for one cannot fully work without the other.

The difference between these three traits is that empathy is feeling with someone else, sympathy is understanding why someone feels a certain way, and compassion is acting to relieve a person’s pain. 

Can You Be Compassionate Without Being Empathetic?

Compassion without empathy serves to benefit no one and it means making a lot of assumptions. Trying to make someone feel better without understanding and knowing what they are feeling is like trying to hit a dart board in a pitch black room.

The effort is there but the chances of you hitting the bullseye are pretty low, and if you do it’s because of luck rather than skill. To use the same metaphor, having compassion with empathy is like hitting the bullseye while standing inches away from the dartboard– you know where the bullseye is and you can simply reach out and stick the dart in.

In a real game of darts this would be cheating but there are no strict rules to human interaction like there are in a bar game. Trying to relieve a person’s suffering without knowing how they feel can only lead to empty gestures, so it’s best to try to empathize with a person before taking action. 

Compassion vs Empathy Buddhism

Buddhism teaches that it is ideal to practice compassion and relieve others suffering whenever we see it. The religion preaches forgoing the idea of individual me and individual you in favor of a compassionate we. If you are suffering, then I too am suffering, if you are well then I too can be well.

This practice relies on empathy not as simply recognition of another’s feelings, but rather taking them on as if they are your own. When you see someone else’s pain as your own pain, ie you empathize with their suffering, then you are called to compassion, called to alleviate that pain for the betterment of everyone.

What Is Empathy vs Sympathy?

Empathy differs from sympathy in that when you are sympathetic to a person’s struggles there is still distance between them and you, when you are empathetic, you take on another’s emotions as if they were your own.

Empathy is feeling with, it is understanding another’s emotions so well that you feel them too. Sympathy on the other hand is simply understanding why someone feels a certain way without taking on the emotions yourself. 

Is It Better to Be Sympathetic or Empathetic?

Theoretically it is better to be empathetic than sympathetic, however without a certain level of compassion neither can go very far. Pure empathy on its own can be overwhelming if you do nothing to relieve the pain. Just having empathy can lead to two people suffering together without any remedy on the horizon. Sympathy on its own too is not very effective.

Without compassion, or the willingness to relieve a person’s suffering, sympathy is just pity. Sympathy is simply seeing that there is something wrong and not doing anything about it. Neither sympathy nor empathy is inherently better than the other but neither gets very far without compassion.

A red heart painted on a group of hands - Sympathy Vs Empathy Vs Compassion - Gone Minimal
A red heart painted on a group of hands

Why Do I Feel Empathy but Not Sympathy?

As humans, we are both blessed and cursed with a sense of empathy. In order to relate to other people we have instilled in us an empathy that says “you must feel what others feel because you can put yourself in their shoes.” You feel empathy because it is really difficult to hear of someone’s suffering and not imagine how you would feel if you were in their situation.

Sympathy can be practiced and if it is understanding why someone feels a certain way then it can be a valuable component to compassion. If you find yourself feeling only empathy then perhaps it’s time to talk to the person you know is suffering so you know why they feel that way and understand how their past experiences and their personality color their emotional reaction to a situation.

Everyone reacts to different emotional triggers differently, some people get angry or frustrated, some get insecure and sad, some ignore the pain until they can’t take it any longer. Having sympathy, having an understanding of how another person reacts to pain along with empathy is an important part of compassion and helping them to feel better. 

Three Components of Empathy

1. Cognitive

Cognitive empathy is being able to understand what and how someone else is thinking. It’s getting in another person’s thoughts. It is asking yourself questions like: What loss have they experienced? How will this loss affect their life moving forward? Ways to develop stronger cognitive empathy are cultivating curiosity: talking to people and asking them about their feelings to find out how something is affecting them.

Being aware of your own biases: do you have any preconceived notions that might inhibit your ability to empathize? And finally listening: letting someone tell you their troubles and allowing yourself to fully absorb what they are saying. These three skills will help build cognitive empathy skills.

2. Emotional

Emotional empathy allows you to share or take on the feelings of others. Having emotional empathy allows you to connect better to others because you share their feelings with them. Ways to develop emotional empathy are walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, or, imagining how you would feel in their situation. How would you react?

How would you want someone else to help you if you were suffering in this way. It is also relating your own experiences. If someone lost a loved one, do you remember how you felt when you lost a loved one, or could you imagine how you would feel if you lost someone close to you? Emotional empathy is about building connections through shared emotions and shared experiences. 

3. Compassionate

Compassionate empathy goes beyond cognitive and emotional empathy as it is the drive to fix the situation. And if not to fix the situation, then to help make someone’s suffering a little more manageable. Ways to enact compassionate empathy can be small gestures like cooking a meal for your friend so they don’t have to worry about it, helping out with the chores that pile up, or even just keeping them company for a while so they don’t have to suffer alone.

Helpful Insights

The Levels of Empathy

Counseling Training in Liverpool assesses several helpful levels of Empathy. Let’s briefly explore, critique, and teach in our own way what those levels can mean.

Level 1 – Low Level of Empathy

People with low level empathy usually do not have an awareness of how their actions affect others. They act based on their own feelings without taking into account how it could harm someone else. Level 1 empathy is characterized by a lack of self-control. Being able to control your emotions means knowing how your actions affect others, if someone doesn’t have that awareness then they will act without much forethought. 

Level 2 – Moderately Low Level of Empathy

Level 2 empathy is typically seen as an afterthought to a behavior. Those with level 2 empathy have enough understanding of others’ feelings to know when they’ve hurt someone, but not enough understanding to avoid causing pain to begin with. This person will frequently commit social faux pas only to realize later upon reflection or someone else pointing it out how it may have caused harm.

Level 3 – Reciprocal Level of Empathiy

Level 3 empathy is understanding how actions can affect others but not fully grasping what to do with that knowledge. In this level, a person has an awareness of empathy and knows generally how to interact socially  at a normal level, but sometimes still struggles with relating to others or understanding the actions of others. 

Level 4 – Moderately high level of Empathy

Level 4 is having empathy and being able to understand the emotions of others but not necessarily putting it into practice. A person with level 4 empathy may seem closed off or unwilling to share their emotions but they still understand how they feel and how others feel as well. They might be more cognizant of their actions and their emotions without necessarily acting on them or revealing their own feelings. 

Level 5 – High Level of Empathy

Level 5 empathy is having an awareness of others’ feelings and being particularly sensitive to how others feel, even if they aren’t directly interacting with them. They are sensitive to the feelings of others and are careful not to upset anyone with their own words or actions while also being interested in how others feel.

How to Spot a Narcissist

Narcissists can often be observed to focus on themselves, obtaining power and control, and doing that with little reguard for its impact on and the way others feel. while there is a spectrum of behavior that differers across people, narcissists can often display patterns of behavior that allow conclusion of their general disposition.

How Can You Tell If Someone Lacks Empathy?

It can be pretty easy to pick up on a lack of empathy if you know what to look for. Oftentimes someone who lacks empathy will act according to their own needs without consideration of the feelings of others. A common thought you may have when you interact with a person who lacks empathy is “it’s like they didn’t even care how that would make me feel.”

This reaction is often because someone who lacks empathy doesn’t know to care about how their actions affect others. This can either be due to a mental illness that causes a lack of empathy like certain personality disorders, or it can be due to their upbringing which didn’t encourage empathetic interactions.

Can You Teach Someone Empathy?

Empathy can be practiced and learned but teaching someone else empathy can be very difficult. When someone lacks empathy they might not have the motivation to learn empathy as they don’t see why they should be aware of how others are feeling.

They might think it doesn’t affect them. The best way you can improve someone else’s awareness of empathy is by openly communicating how their actions make you feel. Letting someone know when their actions have hurt you and how they have hurt you can make them a lot more aware of the feelings of others. 

Why Do Narcissists Have No Empathy?

There are a lot of factors that cause narcissists to lack empathy, but most narcissists struggle with empathy because of a traumatic upbringing. In survival mode, it comes in handy to not be burdened by other’s feelings. How can you think of other people’s pain when you have to deal with your own.

Some narcissists were raised in an environment that didn’t emphasize needing to know how other people feel and so they never properly learned how to empathize. There are many factors that can contribute to a narcissist lacking empathy, but most trace back to their childhood and a need to survive.

Can You Teach Empathy to a Narcissist?

Generally speaking, narcissists can learn empathy but it takes time and effort. It is probably best left to a mental health professional to teach a narcissist how and why to empathize with others. They often need to be taught why it is important to have empathy before they can begin learning how to empathize with others. It takes a greater effort for a narcissist to empathize with others because it does not come automatically.

They have to think more about how they would feel in someone else’s situation and place themselves in the position of someone else in order to understand why they feel a certain way. For people who aren’t narcissists, empathy comes pretty easily and automatically, it doesn’t often require much cognition.

That’s not the case with narcissists, they have to put in a much greater effort to practice empathy. Therefore, narcissists can learn empathy but it takes a lot of time and practice and often the help and guidance of a professional. 

What Is the Difference Between Pity and Sympathy?

Pity can be seen as sympathy without empathy. It is feeling sorry for someone’s situation without trying to understand how it is making them feel.

Other Resources:

Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are all very closely related terms. They are how we relate to suffering that isn’t our own and how we relate to other people. Each has unique features but all three are best used in conjunction with the others. 

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