Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Difference Between Sympathy, Compassion, & Empathy

This dog is showing the fawn compassion, not empathy.

Another book excerpt (from Mighty: Equipping Boys With The Skills They Need To Control Their Emotions, Understand Others, And Lead Powerful And Productive Lives):

Many people use the words Sympathy, Compassion, and Empathy interchangeably. But, they are most definitely different concepts. Let me briefly define them:

Sympathy: sharing a feeling with someone (usually a negative feeling)
Compassion: feeling sorry for someone's misfortunate (aka pity)
Empathy: intellectually understanding why a person is feeling the way he/she is feeling

On the surface, all three words sound like they mean the same thing, but they do not. It is possible to have empathy for another person but feel no sympathy for that individual. It is equally possible to show someone compassion without having any understanding why that person is feeling the way he/she is feeling. Of course, all three concepts are related, and a person who is more empathic is likely to be more compassionate.[1] But, it is not right to lump them all together as if they are the same concept.

For example, there is no reason why a person would need to have sympathy (sharing a feeling of anger, for example) in order to have empathy. After a thorough understanding of a murderer’s life circumstances, a judge might be able to understand why the murderer was angry and why he felt he needed to kill his victim. But, the judge does not need to share those feelings with the murderer. The judge may not even need to feel compassion toward the murderer. But, the judge will be more likely to make an informed decision about the murderer’s sentence by having empathy. Empathy is not a free pass. It is a tool we can use to get along with others. However, when we conflate empathy with compassion and sympathy, it can actually cloud our judgment and cause us to make decisions that do not benefit society as a whole.[2]

From now on, think of empathy as an intellectual exercise and as something a person can have for one another. Sympathy and compassion are feeling states, and they are something a person can feel for one another.

Developing empathy does not mean turning into a pushover. In fact, it can lead to great strength in conflictual and moral situations—understanding where another person is coming from is crucial. But, that does not mean the empathizer needs to feel sorry for others or feel sympathy when no sympathy is due. Teaching empathy is not about pitying others. It is about helping people regulate their emotions and have empathy toward others in order to grow into strong, mighty individuals.

[1] Johnson, et al. (2002)
[2] Breithaupt (2012); Choe & Min (2011)

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Thanks for reading-- Max Wachtel, Ph.D.


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Sorry but Dr. Max Wachtel has got it completely WRONG! I did not have to go past his definitions to know that he has them totally messed up

Thank you so much! It is an remarkable web page.

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