What’s the Difference Between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion?

When you think about reacting to someone’s emotions, there is probably a juggler inside your head throwing three balls – empathy, sympathy and compassion.

For most people, the true distinction between the three is lost, and therefore the majority of people use the terms interchangeably.

However, each quality has a slightly different definition that makes it unique from the rest. Empathy vs compassion vs sympathy. What are the differences? Let’s start by looking at each word individually.

What is empathy?

Empathy is when you hear or see someone’s emotions and instinctually feel the same feelings as well. For example, have you ever seen someone else cry and started crying in turn? If so, you were showing empathy – you felt the pain that person was feeling in that moment.

Likewise, if you see someone beaming with joy and a big smile plastered across their face, someone who is empathetic would take on this emotion and feel happy and smile as well.

Approximately 20% of the population is what is known as a Highly Sensitive Person (HSP). That is, their brains are more sensitive to picking up information from the world around them. In particular, this occurs in emotional stimuli and facial expressions – HSPs are very good at detecting and processing other people’s emotions. 

As such, many people mistake them for empaths, as they have the same ability to feel another person’s emotions as an empath does.

The other way a person can be empathetic is if they put themselves in someone else’s shoes. By this, I mean understanding what has happened and internalising it to the point you put yourself mentally in the position of the other person.

What is sympathy?

Sympathy is when you can understand what someone is feeling through context and past experience. It is also understanding why someone would feel that way. 

For example, if you saw someone trip over in the middle of the street and saw them crying in pain and embarrassed, you may not feel that way yourself, but you can understand how someone tripping in the middle of a busy street would lead them to feel pain and embarrassment. 

Likewise, if you watched a news story about someone who won the lottery, you may not feel the happiness they are exhibiting in the video clip, but you can understand why they would feel happy about it.


What is compassion?

Compassion takes sympathy and empathy a step further by trying to make the person feel better about their situation.

Compassion comes from the Latin word compati meaning “to suffer with”. As such, compassion is all about alleviating a person’s pain and suffering in whichever way you can.

Compassion starts with either feeling or understanding the emotion that a person is feeling (empathy or sympathy) which then evolves into you feeling compelled to help the person and alleviate any painful or negative emotions they may be feeling.

It could mean hugging someone when they need it, helping them fix something that is broken, or simply being a good listener for the person to let their feelings out. 

For example, if your friend breaks up with their partner, you could feel sympathetic (understand why they are upset) or empathetic (feel their pain). Because you feel compassion towards your friend, you may then feel the need to alleviate their pain by listening to their pain, hanging out with them, or helping them move on from their ex.

What are the fundamental differences between empathy, sympathy and compassion?

The question still remains, what is the difference between empathy vs compassion, or empathy vs sympathy. Now that we know what each word means by itself, what fundamental differences make each word unique?

How emotion is experienced

Empathy relates to a person physically feeling the emotions of another as if it were their own or stretching their imagination to the point they can imagine having those emotions themselves. 

On the other hand, people that are sympathetic will not experience the emotion firsthand. Although they can logically understand how an event can cause a particular emotion for a person, it does not drive them to feel the emotion viscerally.

Compassion can be felt through sympathy or empathy, and the emotion is experienced strongly enough to feel compelled to take action and help the person in need.

The type of emotion being discussed

Both empathy and sympathy can relate to both positive and negative emotions. Whether someone is happy or sad, empaths are able to feel those emotions, and people are able to be sympathetic and understand why the person feels the way they do. 

Compassion, on the other hand, relates exclusively to negative emotions. After all, if someone is feeling happy as a consequence of something that has happened to them, there is no pain to alleviate, no suffering involved! 


Whether it is learned or innate 

Sympathy and compassion are often skills taught from a young age to be used in social situations to be better members of society.

Children are raised to understand that certain situations elicit different emotional responses, allowing them to be sympathetic to the people around them as they grow older. 

Likewise, some people are taught to help those going through a hard time, leading to compassionate behaviour and individuals.

Empathy, however, is often an involuntary response in individuals with high sensory processing capabilities such as HSP’s. Usually, people don’t set out to be empathetic as it can be emotionally draining. Still, due to the way their brain is wired, they are simply more sensitive to other people’s emotions.

Final thoughts 

Almost everyone experiences at least one of these three feelings every once in a while. And one is not necessarily better than the other.

Different situations call for a different response. For example, it may be inappropriate to be compassionate to your manager going through financial troubles, but you can be sympathetic.

Why not have a think about the last time you saw an emotional story on social media or played out in your real life. How did you react? Were you empathetic, sympathetic, or compassionate?

After reading this article, I’m sure you know exactly how to answer!

What’s the Difference Between Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion?

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