Sympathy, empathy, compassion (oh my!)

Sympathy. Empathy. Compassion. While difficult to untangle at first, these concepts are actually quite different to each other, if one is willing to examine them a little more closely.

Shame and connection researcher Brené Brown  discusses the difference between sympathy and empathy in this short animated video.

In short, sympathy is acknowledging and/or feeling sorry about another’s difficult experience, but with some detachment. Sympathy sees the difficulty in the situation, but draws the line at understanding how that situation might actually feel. Because there is no emotional investment, it is very easy for sympathy to minimise the situation by pointing out a silver lining or another perspective to the situation.

In my experience this can happen in two stages. Stage one involves sharing a difficult experience with someone. In the video, one example is ‘I’ve just had a miscarriage’. A silver lining is offered: ‘At least you know you can get pregnant’. Stage two involves sharing to a third party how this invalidating experience felt: ‘I told my friend I’d had a miscarriage and all they said was at least I know I can get pregnant!’. Here, sympathy tries to find another perspective: ‘Yeah…but maybe they didn’t know what to say/were having a bad day/can’t even get pregnant themselves’.

While perspective taking is vital, I think it’s important to note the accumulating layers of invalidation in this example. If a silver lining or different perspective is offered before acknowledging the original source of pain or any subsequent invalidation, sympathy can often do more harm than good.

Empathy, on the other hand, is getting in touch with that part of ourselves which also knows pain, in order to understand what another person might be feeling. An empathic response is the difference between knowing something and feeling something. In this situation, an empathetic listener would feel that sense of loss and grief alongside their friend.

Compassion – the deep wish to relieve pain – takes this one step further. Often, it is more than mere intention, it is loving action. It is the comfort which a parent would offer a crying child, rather than activating their potential for feeling pain in order to understand it in their child (empathy) or simply feeling sorry that the child is in pain (sympathy). Compassion doesn’t try and absorb the pain. Nor does it try and solve the original source of the pain or find a silver lining. Compassion simply creates a tender space with which to validates another’s experience of pain.

Tania Singer at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences characterises empathy as a precursor to compassion. However, in the course of her work, she has concluded that too much empathy can lead to burnout.

This is best illustrated during her study of individuals’ brain function after watching video footage of violent suffering. It was only through a compassionate – rather than empathic – response that they felt capable of witnessing severe such distress without feeling overwhelmed by it. One of the participants, Matthieu Ricard has written this account* of his experiences during the study:

The word empathy means an affective resonance with someone else. If you are moved by the suffering of someone, even though you make a clear distinction between yourself and that person, you suffer because she suffers. You may also feel joy when she feels joy. Researchers found that a part of their brain network associated with pain is activated in subjects who watch someone being hurt.

When repeated over time, empathic resonance with others’ pain can lead to empathic distress and emotional exhaustion, or burnout. According to a study carried out in North America, 60% of all nurses, doctors, and caregivers who are in constant contact with patients experiencing suffering have suffered, or will suffer, burnout at some point in their professional life.

Compassion and selfless love are associated with positive emotions. Based on this, in the course of my collaboration with Tania Singer, we realized that burnout was actually a due to ‟empathy fatigue” and not to ‟compassion fatigue”. Compassion, far from leading to distress and discouragement, strengthens our fortitude, our inner balance and our courageous determination to help those who suffer. In essence, from our point of view, love and compassion do not wear out. Rather they help to overcome empathic distress.

These three dimensions — altruistic love, empathy and compassion — are naturally connected. Within altruistic love, or benevolence, empathy alerts us that the other person might be suffering. Compassion — the desire to dispel these sufferings and their causes — follows. Thus, when confronted with suffering, altruistic love, catalyzed by empathy, becomes compassion.

Compassion, by its very nature, is boundless. And because of this, it allows us to sustain a deep connection with others that sympathy and empathy can never hope to cultivate.

* edited for brevity. Additional references can be found here.
Photo credit: Pinterest

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Melita Caulfield

Melita believes in living mindfully and authentically which is reflected in her writing and artistic expression.

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