Thursday, May 16, 2024

Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

 I've thought of sympathy and empathy before. Lately, I've enhanced my perspective and added compassion to the mix.

I recall, years ago, looking up 'sympathy' and 'empathy' in the dictionary and seeing them defined opposite of how I used those two words. On researching it further, I discovered different dictionaries had different views of the two words. Go look back at my thoughts from back then and you can catch up... or simply go with the following definitions:

Sympathy is the intellectual understanding of another person's plight or situation. I may have never experienced what you are experiencing or anything similar, but from what you have said or shown, I can sympathize with you. I can understand what you are going through.

Empathy is the emotional understanding of another person's plight or situation and is based on an experiential memory. I empathize with people who are going through something I have or am currently experiencing myself.

In many ways, they are interchangeable. We take the time to relate to the other person's situation. Yes, they differ based on how we are connected - by memory or intellectual description. Yet, in the end, we are connecting with the person.

Now, let's go off on a tangent. Compassion. Compassion is about having either sympathy or empathy for another person and acting on that feeling to help the person we are connecting with. Compassion is an active behavior motivated by either sympathy or empathy.

There is a huge divide between compassion and the first two emotions (sympathy and empathy). Both sympathy and empathy are inwardly focused. We may tell someone we are sympathetic, and in doing so, we are asking them to look at us and our state. These emotions are more of a "Look at me. I am the same as you." type of response. Yes, there might be a "you are not alone" element, but in the end, you're not alone because I am there with you.

Sympathy and empathy are self-focused in nature. Compassion is focused on the other person. With compassion, we use our understanding (via sympathy or empathy) to motivate ourselves to act for the good of the other person. Our role is diminished in favor of the other person's outcome and relief. With compassion, sympathy/empathy is a motivator and driver. It is not the focus.

In the end, let's be compassionate.

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