Recently I have been trying to sort out the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion. In an article about sympathy and empathy in psychotherapy research, Lauren Wispe writes: “Briefly, sympathy refers to the heightened awareness of another’s plight as something to be alleviated. Empathy refers to the attempt of one self-aware self to understand the subjective experiences of another self. Sympathy is a way of relating. Empathy is a way of knowing.” So in some sense, sympathy is attention to another person’s experience as a witness and empathy is a search for a similar experience inside of ourselves so that we can “feel with” the other person what the experience feels like.
So how about compassion? From Wikipedia: “Compassion (from Latin: ‘co-suffering’) is a virtue —one in which the emotional capacities of empathy and sympathy (for the suffering of others) are regarded as a part of love itself, and a cornerstone of greater social interconnectedness and humanism —foundational to the highest principles in philosophy, society, and personhood.”
It seems that compassion is a stance we take toward the suffering of others. It is our willingness to open ourselves to knowing about that suffering and sticking with that person. In that sense, it is a part of our own character in that we allow ourselves to feel the pain of other people as a way of caring about them. In other words, both sympathy–understanding someone’s pain–and empathy–getting in touch with our own experiences of pain in order to understand someone else’s pain–are contained in compassion.
Sometimes sympathy seems distancing in that we try to understand someone’s suffering as a spectator, not as a participant. With empathy, we enter into the puddle of emotion and join the other person as a fellow sufferer. The definition of compassion here suggests that we need both. Our own experience will not be exactly like the other person’s and so we need to take into account those differences. At the same time, we know what sadness feels like. We know what anger feels like. Those similar experiences can be a doorway to truly understanding someone else.
Life has its ups and downs. Our capacity as human beings to accompany each other on the journey makes the downs more bearable and the ups more pleasurable. Building our ability to meet our relationships with compassion enriches the other person’s experiences, but even more important, it creates an inner expansion and growth in us that is deeply gratifying.