Cultivating a genuine feeling of connectedness with your community is a critical part of our well-being. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), people with strong social bonds are less likely to have depression and anxiety, heart disease, or dementia—and more likely to have a better quality of life.
Connecting with your fellow humans doesn’t just involve empathy; genuine connections are also built on the related feelings of sympathy (having concern for someone else) and compassion (understanding someone’s struggle and wanting to help make it better). All of which sound, well, extremely similar to empathy. So when it comes to empathy vs. sympathy vs. compassion...what's the difference, and why does it matter?
"You can experience empathy simply because of your close relationship with another person, and your ability to be empathetic can change with time." —Marc Campbell, LHMC
The answer, some experts say, isn’t all that clear cut. “[There is] quite a quagmire in academia over the definition of those terms,” says Stephanie Preston, PhD, a professor of psychology and director of the Ecological Neuroscience Lab at the University of Michigan. “There are dozens of articles about this, and currently the leaders in the field of empathy, sympathy, compassion are in a group that's meeting semi-regularly to create an article that should be an overview of these distinctions and try and create some clarity in the field. So it’s actually debated, and there are different opinions in academia.”
While the precise definitions aren’t yet universally established, these feelings are universal to the human experience. Below, psychology experts dive into the difference between sympathy and empathy, and how they can lead us to compassion.
What is empathy?
When you’re chatting with a loved one about anything they might be struggling with—whether it be anything from work stress, finances, or interpersonal conflicts—it’s nearly impossible not to have an emotional reaction. Although the adversity they’re experiencing may not be directly related to you, it’s a natural response for your body and mind to take on some of the emotions they’re feeling. This, in a simplistic way, is a common definition of empathy.
You don't have to have experienced the same exact thing as the other person order to feel empathy. “I think there is a common misconception with empathy that you have to relate or fully understand what the other person is going through to be empathetic. You can experience empathy simply because of your close relationship with another person, and your ability to be empathetic can change with time,” says Marc Campbell, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor and author of I Love My Queer Kid.
An example Campbell shares is empathy within the relationship between a queer child and their caregiver. “Although this parent might not understand or relate, the parent can experience empathy when they hold space with their child and listen with curiosity,” he explains. “This could also impact their empathy level in the future, so when they hear about the newest anti-LGBTQ+ law, they feel empathy not only for their child but for the LGBTQ+ community as a whole.”
Empathy often has a distinct psychosomatic impact on us that can make it recognizable, too. “The important part, in my theory of empathy, is that it doesn't always have to be conscious. Sometimes when you see somebody who's crying or in distress, it immediately makes you feel distressed. That can be a strong motivation to do something to help the other person,” Dr. Preston says. “Even when we pay attention to and recognize somebody else's facial emotion or the way they're talking, it activates a specific process in our own brains and bodies that we're not always aware of, but that informs us as to how they might feel at all levels of consciousness.”
A key element of empathy is also that, in many cases, it can spark us to move into action. “It usually helps promote people to take action to help another person because it provides them with a really direct motivational bodily state to do something about distress or sadness that somebody is going through,” Dr. Preston says. It could be something as simple as giving them a hug or something more involved like mediating a conflict between friends—whatever we feel will alleviate some of their pain.
What is sympathy?
Still common but often misunderstood, Campbell says that sympathy can be just as helpful and powerful an experience as empathy. Essentially, sympathy is when you are concerned about someone who is going through something difficult. You’re not feeling their exact emotions, but you are feeling worried about them. “Sympathy tends to get a bad rap as the less impressive twin of empathy, but that isn’t the case,” says Campbell. “Sympathy is needed to help acknowledge the distress or pain of others, and it’s important because you don’t need to personally understand [or experience] the pain to understand that it’s painful.”
He explains that a scenario like caring about your best friend getting laid off from work can manifest as sympathetic emotion, even if you have never experienced that hardship yourself. “Sympathy is powerful because even though you aren’t feeling what your friend is feeling, even though you can’t relate to what they are going through, you do know that this is a difficult time for them.” Feeling genuinely sympathetic toward someone you care about and choosing to be a listening ear is an accessible way to show that you want to support them, without the need for taking on the symptoms of their emotions yourself.
How are empathy and sympathy different?
The concepts of empathy and sympathy go hand in hand, but experts say that their impact on us—and the ways they might be perceived by others—can differ.
“Most people think of sympathy as related to empathy, but it's more like you feel sorry for the other person rather than feeling sorry with them,” Dr. Preston notes. “So you don't actually have to share in their [emotional] state at the time to have sympathy. You can sympathize with somebody whose experience you don't really understand. You're not feeling it yourself, but you still feel sad for them in a way that can still motivate action on their behalf.”
That said, Dr. Preston adds that sympathy can also be viewed less favorably depending on the person or situation. “Sometimes [sympathy] can be patronizing, because people don't always want to be sympathized with,” she says. “They would rather have somebody relate to their experience, which is more the empathy component. Both sympathy and empathy can promote helping, but the way your brain and body process them can be pretty different and they're not always appreciated to the same degree, especially when it feels patronizing.”
Even in scenarios where you may not be able to fully relate to what someone else is going through, validating their feelings and showing them support is still possible. (For example, saying something like "I know this has been really hard for you," or "I can see how their actions hurt you.") In some cases, it can (and should) lead to action. This is where sympathy and empathy can translate into something else: compassion.
How can I turn sympathy or empathy into compassion?
Sympathy, empathy, and compassion—at their most basic level—are all related. They arise from our interpersonal relationships and typically provide something positive in negative situations. Anyone can experience these at different points in their lives, but focusing on compassion above all tends to yield the greatest result, and makes the biggest difference.
“Compassion is connected to both sympathy and empathy, because both can lead to taking action,” Campbell says. “Compassion is simply allowing your feelings of sympathy or empathy to guide you to help. That can look like many things; a parent can show compassion for their queer child just by creating a safe space for them. That parent can also show compassion by starting a fundraiser for the local LGBTQ+ center. Being compassionate doesn’t have to be some grand gesture, it could just be being there for someone.”
Although in many cases, there isn’t much you can do to resolve someone else’s problems—especially if they’re unique to that person’s identity or when you lack the resources to fully address them—feeling compassion for another person can sometimes be just as powerful. Even a small action that is spurred from feeling compassionate for them, like organizing a meal train for first-time parents in your life or accompanying a friend to visit a sick family member in the hospital, can make a massive difference in their outlook on the situation.
“I think compassion is sort of a key to unlock our interactions with other people." —Stephanie Preston, PhD
The idea of compassion at large can shape how we view humanity, as well. When we see examples of compassion in our daily lives, it can remind us that there are people out there who are able to care—to see needs outside of their own, and feel compelled to address them.
“Compassion can come out of empathy, but it doesn't have to. It's a sort of concern with the welfare of another individual, and wanting to approach it in a way that's supportive,” Dr. Preston says. “Empathy and sympathy are more like predispositions that are emotional, motivational states. They can promote action, but don't always. Compassion is more grounded in the feeling that they have a humanity that we should try to support and protect.”
Dr. Preston says that building compassion for other people is like a “muscle” that you can train within yourself. “I think compassion is sort of a key to unlock our interactions with other people. [There are] forms of ‘compassion meditation,’ where you can start with people really close to you that you easily identify with or feel for, but then the exercise takes you to individuals further and further from what you naturally feel empathy for or compassion with. And you get to practice using this muscle of extending your understanding of other people as deserving of love and respect, even when that's not our natural stance on strangers. It’s like a muscle that you can exercise through compassion-based meditation.” (You can try it yourself using this guide from University of California Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center.)
Practicing compassion for yourself is important, too. Without the ability to be gentle with yourself in times of hardship, it’s difficult to extend that same grace to others. “A lot of people generate conflict because they need compassion for themselves,” says Dr. Preston. “So self compassion is another form of meditation where you might be on edge all the time because you're so worried that you're not matching people's expectations or you're being judged or you didn't do it exactly right or enough. And so if you have some compassion for yourself as well, that can alleviate conflict because you're not on edge and you're not defending your ego.” Some effective practices to help you increase your self-compassion include journaling and transforming negative self-talk.
Empathy, sympathy, and compassion can each be applied to different situations and people in your life, depending on the needs and severity of what they might be going through. Regardless of which emotion you experience, as Dr. Preston mentioned, keeping in mind the idea that humanity in others—and yourself—deserves to be honored and protected is one of the best ways to maintain a compassionate worldview. Everyone is worthy of having the opportunity to be given grace, compassion, and support. Feeling less alone in our difficulties can help remind us that we are loved and cared for, and that regardless of the outcome, we will be okay.
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