Sympathy vs. Empathy vs. Compassion

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sympathy vs empathy vs compassion

Do you aspire to living a life of enlightenment? Acting for the good of others and not yourself is the cornerstone of an enlightened life and will put you on the path of contentment. There are many terms that are used to describe actions as they relate to other’s needs and suffering and they are often wrongly utilized. Do you know the difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion and how they may relate to your life choices?

Sympathy – feeling sorry for another’s hurt

Sympathy is feeling sorry for another’s hurt or pain. There is some emotional distance with sympathy – you are not experiencing the pain for yourself, rather you are saying “Isn’t it sad that this person is having a bad time”. Sometimes sympathy can tip into pity, and that is where some caution is needed. Pity is an emotion that tends to dehumanize and belittle. Most people who have a disability or other challenges will despise being ‘pitied’ as pity strips away the rich reality of their human experience and leaves just the difficulty or disability on view. For a deeper relationship and understanding, empathy is needed.

Empathy – walking in another’s shoes

Empathy takes things a little deeper – it is the ability to experience for yourself some of the pain that the other person may be experiencing. It is an acknowledgement of our shared experience as humans and recognition that we all feel grief and loss and pain and fear. You do not need to have experienced exactly the same events as the person who is suffering but you do need to have the ability to really imagine how they must be feeling in their situation. Empathy is a vicarious experience – if your friend is feeling afraid, you too will experience a feeling of fear in your body; if they are sad, you too will feel sorrow. Feeling empathy is allowing yourself to become tuned into another person’s emotional experience. It takes courage to do this but if you have ever experienced real empathy from another when you have been hurting, you will know what a gift it can be.

Compassion – love in action

If empathy is the ability to really experience some of the feelings of pain that another person is feeling, then compassion is to translate that feeling into action. You understand that your friend is feeling worried and stressed with their aging relative in hospital, so you cook the family some dinners and take their children for an afternoon. True compassion reaches out to all people, no matter whether they are your friends or not, and even to all living creatures. It is the ability and willingness to stand alongside someone and to put their needs before your own.
Living a compassionate life can be learned – it is not just something that some ‘extra-good’ people are born with. Changing habits takes persistence and practice but it is achievable through the right methods.
Many of the worlds’ wisest people have stated that giving to others in life is the source of the greatest contentment and life satisfaction, so there are many personal benefits to be gained as well.

To bring the power of compassion into your life there are a few things you can do. Firstly, you need to begin to discern the difference and develop your ability to walk in other people’s shoes. Learning to meditate can greatly help develop qualities of empathy and compassion. Meditation helps you access your own inner wise being who is present in your subconscious always, and will allow you to move from living a life for yourself to living a life for others. Bringing to your meditation an image of a person who is having difficulties can give you a transformative experience of real empathy by allowing your subconscious to help you. Meditation can help you become a person of true compassion, and lead to your life feeling deeply fulfilled in a way you could never have imagined.


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