HONOURABLE ATTRIBUTES are the foundation that underpin our character and integrity. As part of supporting our community we regularly feature articles that look at such topics as COURAGE, RESILIENCE, INTEGRITY, HONESTY and numerous other human characteristics that are worthy of cultivating, as they provide us with strength, conviction and personal respect to stay in control of our life and situations.

At this time in our world one attribute that is highlighted as the most essential is COMPASSION. In this article we explore what it means to be compassionate and how compassion differs from empathy and sympathy.

Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are three words that many may use interchangeably, but they are not synonymous with one another even though they are close cousins. Let’s take a closer look at how to differentiate them.

Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

Let’s unpack this more to understand the difference between compassion, sympathy, and empathy.

SYMPATHY

To feel sympathy means you are able to understand what the person is feeling. With sympathy, one can understand or imagine why someone is either going through a hard time or why someone might be feeling happy or sad. For example, although you might not feel the same grief, you can understand why someone might be grieving if their close friend passed away.

EMPATHY

Empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels. Thanks to what researchers have deemed “mirror neurons,” empathy may arise automatically when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw me slam a car door on my fingers, you might feel pain in your fingers as well. That feeling means your mirror neurons have kicked in.

You may not always automatically feel how another is feeling, and that’s when you need to rely on your imagination. You have most likely heard the phrase, “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” That’s the other route to being an empathetic person.

For example, perhaps you saw me slam my fingers in a car door, but you didn’t automatically feel that pain. Instead, you can empathise by imagining what it might be like to have your fingers slammed in a door, and that may allow you to feel my pain, or it can be as simple as noticing someone’s facial expressions and then feeling those same emotions yourself.

By the way, empathy isn’t just for unpleasant feelings. You can feel empathy when you see someone happy, too. Isn’t it great when someone walks in the room smiling, and that makes you smile?

EMPATHY VERSUS SYMPATHY

It’s not easy to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference between sympathy and empathy is understanding a feeling versus experiencing another’s feelings. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, you may not be able to viscerally feel that person’s pain. However, you can employ your cognitive skills and emotional intelligence to understand that your friend is sad. It makes sense, then, to send a sympathy card. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want them to know you are aware of their suffering. Typically, people can sympathise much easier than they can empathise.

COMPASSION

Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further. It is the more powerful option, this is why. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognise that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do your best to alleviate the person’s suffering from that situation.

At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering. Showing compassion can help gain perspective or a new point of view because it puts you in someone else’s shoes and makes you put time and thought into alleviating someone’s suffering.

Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., author of the course Compassion Cultivation Training states that there are four-steps to the process of compassion:

  • Awareness of suffering
  • Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering
  • Wish to see the relief of that suffering
  • Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering

EMPATHY VERSUS COMPASSION

An important distinction between feeling empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience a great deal of burnout. This is a common problem for caregivers and health care providers, and it has been labelled “empathy fatigue.”

Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you have the ability to feel empathy for the other person, but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out.

 Research indicates that compassion and empathy employ different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress. Neuroscience explains why.

Empathic people feel the pain of others acutely. Is it possible to be too empathic? Could feeling too deeply for someone else’s pain or sorrow actually hurt you?  

Indeed, too much empathy can be debilitating. When we become too distressed about the suffering of others, we don’t have the cognitive and emotional resources available to do much to help them. Having compassion, a cognitive understanding of how they’re feeling, is better for our own well-being and the well-being of those in need.

Instead of focusing on empathy to the point of draining ourselves emotionally, studies suggest that the practice of compassion is not only more beneficial for the person you are connecting with, it is also a healthier state of mind for you. The difference is that while you are sharing in the other person’s suffering and have concern for another, compassion allows you to have a level of objectivity in that you feel for the person, but not feel with that person.

There is a real advantage to these differences. As compassion feels but does not totally yields to the emotion of the pain, the compassionate individual is able to evaluate the situation and determine actions that can help alleviate the pain of the sufferer, helping them gain support and relief from their condition to move forward.

A compassionate person views their role as one who can move the situation towards a more positive solution. For example, a compassionate person would say, “I feel your pain and sympathise with your situation, but let’s see what we can do today to help you experience support and make you feel better”. Compassion moves away from camping around the pain and moves towards improving the situation by focusing on identifying and establishing a solution. This is not only beneficial for the sufferer, it is also healthier for the carer, as they are using their influence to provide and support emotional equilibrium. Studies also confirm this.

Neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki conducted studies comparing empathy and compassion. Two separate experiment groups were trained to practice either empathy or compassion. Their research revealed fascinating differences in the brain’s reaction to the two types of training.

First, the empathy training activated motion in the insula (linked to emotion and self-awareness) and motion in the anterior cingulate cortex (linked to emotion and consciousness), as well as pain registering. The compassion group, however, stimulated activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (connected to learning and reward in decision-making) as well as activity in the ventral striatum (also connected to the reward system).

Second, the two types of training led to very different emotions and attitudes toward action. The empathy-trained group actually found empathy uncomfortable and troublesome. The compassion group, on the other hand, created positivity in the minds of the group members. The compassion group ended up feeling kinder and more eager to help others than those in the empathy group.

AVOIDING BURNOUT

Now that you know the difference between empathy and compassion, consider if you are experiencing empathic distress. If you are, here are a couple of ways to support and protect yourself.

Breathe: When we see something distressing, it activates the fight-flight response and our breathing becomes fast and shallow, which increases our anxiety and gives our emotions momentum. Research shows that slow, steady deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the relaxation response. A few deep breaths will help you feel calmer.

Feel your body: When you’re witnessing strong emotions in others, intent to stay with yourself rather than getting caught up in their experience. Feel your feet on the ground and wiggle your toes. Bend your knees slightly if you are standing and feel your butt in the chair supporting you if you’re sitting. Be aware of body sensations and imagine yourself holding the sensations and emotions as they move through your body. And, of course, keep the option open to physically remove yourself situations that become too distressing.

Move towards a solution: Focus your energy on identifying ways to help relieve the situation and support the other person to gain comfort, strength with move towards recovery.

Your compassion is an amazing way where you can improve someone’s quality of life and help them gain tangible support. By understanding how to protect yourself, you can allow compassion to bring hope to others, while staying strong and in control.