Sympathy vs Compassion – What’s The Difference?

Martin Caparrotta
By Martin Caparrotta
Updated on October 27, 2020
Expert Content

What’s the difference between sympathy and compassion?

Although they are similar terms, sympathy and compassion are separate words that essentially have different meanings.

We asked a selected group of experts to explain their views on both sympathy and compassion to help us better understand the difference between the words.

Here’s what they said.

Compassion Is A Deeper-Felt Experience

Christian de la Huerta, Author and Personal Transformation Coach

Compassion is a deeper-felt experience. Looking at the Latin roots of the words, sympathy can be said to mean ‘feel together’, while compassion means ‘suffer with’.

Sympathizing can be a more surface experience, even an intellectual one: ‘I understand how you’d feel that way’.

When we allow ourselves to feel compassion, we are diving deeper into the emotional realm and feeling what the other person is feeling to some degree.

Of course, we will not feel exactly what they’re feeling, but we can draw from our own experience and get pretty close to feeling their pain.

Compassion Is A Step Frontward From Sympathy

Sabrina Romanoff, Clinical Psychologist

Sympathy means you understand what the person is experiencing on an intellectual level.

This relates to your awareness and ability to envision why the individual is experiencing a particular reaction or contributing factors to his or her emotions.

With sympathy, you can see the links between the cause and reaction as it relates to the person’s lived experience.

Compassion is a step frontward from sympathy. When you feel compassionate towards someone, you are able to both recognize and feel his or her lived experience and pain.

This combines the processes of sympathy and empathy as you identify the person’s experience and also feel it yourself.

When feeling compassion, you are making the choice to sit with the person in his or her discomfort, sharing the experience, and demonstrating you can hold it without avoiding or minimizing.

Compassion allows you to decenter from your own experience of the world and enter into the other person’s experience and how they have come to see it with their eyes.

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Compassion Takes Sympathy And Empathy A Step Further

Adam P. Natoli, PhD, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Sam Houston State University

In brief, sympathy suggests an understanding of another’s feelings or other emotional experience whereas compassion tends to take sympathy (and empathy) a step further.

That is, compassion typically involves understanding another’s emotions (i.e., sympathy), often experiencing those emotions yourself to some degree (i.e., empathy), and then responding in some manner (for example, showing your compassion through offering support, validation, caring behaviors, or sending positive vibes).

There Are Many Good Reasons For Cultivating Compassion

Lisa Roulette, Certified Professional Life Coach

Sympathy is a general understanding of someone’s feelings. It’s a recognition of a person’s plight.

Compassion, on the other hand, comes from the Latin root pati, which means ‘to suffer’, and the prefix com means ‘with’.

We experience compassion when we suffer with another person. Since humans are inherently selfish, not all people are innately compassionate.

For the most part, we are largely sympathetic, but not everyone is born with an ability to feel deeply about another person’s suffering.

Nevertheless, there are many good reasons for cultivating compassion. When we grow in compassion, our relationships improve because we gain a better understanding of how another person feels, which opens the gateway to effective communication.

Since developing compassion requires a high level of mindfulness it also allows us to access our inner guidance system, which provides us a wealth of information about our real purpose during this lifetime.

Ultimately, self-compassion is the pre-requisite to high levels of compassion for others.

Although it might sound contradictory, the more tender we feel about our history, struggles, and suffering, the more likely we are to feel the vast interconnectedness of all people and all things.

In the awareness of nothing but one, we are more likely to heal ourselves and help heal others.

The healing that compassion provides has the potential to reshape our world and lift us into harmony and grace, which, in effect, brings heaven to earth.

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Compassion Is Focused On You, Sympathy Is Focused On Me

Steven M. Sultanoff, PhD, Clinical Psychologist and Professor at Pepperdine University

Both are emotions, and both have a behavioral (verbal) component that demonstrates either compassion or sympathy to others.

In the simplest of terms, compassion (which is often considered synonymous with empathy) is directed outward toward another and demonstrates true understanding of the other (without one’s personal bias interfering with the understanding), while sympathy is internally directed and about the individual’s own “stuff” and emotional state.

Compassion is focused on you, and sympathy is focused on me.

From a mental health perspective, compassion is very healing and sympathy is not (although often people say they like people to be sympathetic). Sympathy in a clinical (therapeutic) relationship is mostly harmful.

Compassion:

1) The emotion of compassion is comprised of an internal experience of feeling caring, concern, understanding, and empathy toward another human being (or living creature).

2) The verbal behavioral of communicating compassion is what is commonly referred to as reflective listening, active listening, or empathic responding.

For example, you truly understand how someone feels and experience compassion toward them when you respond by saying, “You sound upset, hurt, excited, sad, disappointed, etc.”

The other person experiences (“feels”) your compassion through your true understanding. A compassionate person demonstrates understanding by listening and then letting the other know that they get it, understand, and care.

Offering advice, for example, while sometimes thought to be compassionate, is actually in the service of the giver of the advice feeling good for giving advice and does not show compassion for the other.

Compassion is verbally best communicated by repeating the words (in a reflective not parroting way) back to the other. For example, “I know you are hurt because he/she did not call you back.”

When it comes to expressing compassion, reflective listening truly helps by demonstrating understanding. Responding by saying back what one heard from the other person, especially attending to their feelings, demonstrates focusing on the person and letting go of internal distractions.

For example, “You are really hurt (sad, excited, anxious, disappointed, angry, etc.) because your friend did not include you.” Even listening without responding can be compassionate.

When truly “listening” you free yourself of your own distractions such as your thoughts of what you would do, the advice you want to share, and the questions you want to ask.

If you can clear your mind and truly listen, you are offering a deeply compassionate gift to the other person.

Sympathy:

1) The emotion of sympathy is “my experience of (reaction to) your situation.” The other may or may not feel that way.

Sympathy lacks understanding of the other. Sympathy is my emotional reaction (my stuff) to your situation.

2) The behavior of communicating sympathy is sharing one’s emotional experience with the other. For example, “I feel sorry you are in that situation.” Or “I get angry just hearing how you are being treated.” Or “It bothers me that you cannot find a job.”

In these statements one is expressing how he/she feels in relation to the other’s issues.

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They Are Related But Very Different

Linda Mueller, Certified Life Coach

While sympathy is the ability to understand another’s suffering without feeling it on a visceral level, compassion is the power to feel another’s suffering and feel motivated to help relieve it.

The two are related but very different. Compassion is an uplevel of sympathy.

Sympathy is sending a card to a friend when their loved-one has passed away. Compassion is offering to care for your friend’s children while they focus on arranging the funeral.

The Dalai Lama once said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

While sympathy is appreciated, compassion if felt in a deeper manner by both the sufferer and the supporter.

Compassion not only increases happiness, but leads to living a fulfilled life.

Compassion Is A Gift That We Give To Others

Cassandra Fay LeClair, PhD, Communication Studies Professor at Texas State University and Author

Sympathy differs from compassion in part because of the feelings evoked.

When you sympathize, you understand what they are feeling or why they may be feeling something.

If another person experiences a loss, you might understand why that would hurt and offer your condolences. You may have empathy for others when you feel their pain and relate to what they are experiencing.

If they lost a parent and you’ve experienced that same loss, you may understand their pain in a different way and empathize with their feelings.

Compassion is a deeper understanding, recognition, and acknowledgment of what another is experiencing. When we have compassion for others, we are attempting to help them through the pain they are experiencing.

Compassion involves active listening, nonverbal immediacy, interpersonal awareness, and being other-oriented.

When we provide compassion for another we aren’t looking to make the situation about ourselves or even trying to empathize based on our own pain or understanding.

Compassion moves us into the space of wanting to help relieve the pain of another. You are holding space for another and working to make them feel safe to express their feelings. You are also working to find ways to help them move through their pain.

Compassion is a gift that we give to others.

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Compassion Occurs After Feelings Of Sympathy

Natalie Hardie, Holistic Mental Health Practitioner

Sympathy refers to the ability to understand what another person is feeling; without experiencing it yourself.

Sympathy is comprised of having feelings of concern for another without feeling the same emotion.

The medial prefrontal cortex is a central structure in a network responsible for pro social behaviour such as sympathy and empathy. It is also connected to the emotional areas which are implicated in sympathy such as the amygdala and the insula.

As we react to others facial expressions of emotions, primary motor regions are also activated during sympathy. Feeling sympathy for others is a fundamental aspect of social communication.

To achieve successful social interaction, we must be able to attribute thoughts and mental states of ourselves as well as others. This process is referred to as theory of mind, which is also associated with the activation of the medial prefrontal cortex.

Compassion occurs after feelings of sympathy. Compassion transpires when your feelings prompt you to take action to relieve the suffering of another person.

Compassion is comprised of having awareness of someone else’s adversity, expressing sympathy and a readiness to help relieve their suffering.

Compassion also includes mindfulness – you must be fully present in the moment in order to acknowledge the suffering of others.

In order for us to have compassion for others, it is vital that we extend that awareness and care towards ourselves.

The right supramarginal gyrus helps us to differentiate our own emotional state from that of other people and is involved in our ability to display empathy and compassion.

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It Takes More Effort To Be Compassionate

Lucile Hernandez Rodriguez, Yoga Teacher and Mindful Business Advisor

To start off, compassion is putting action to your feelings and can be enhanced through meditation and mindfulness.

Compassion and sympathy are two words that are often used interchangeably or regarded as synonymous – which shouldn’t be the case.

There’s a big difference in that sympathy is nothing more than acknowledging an individual’s suffering, while compassion is doing something to act on or relieve that suffering.

When you feel sympathy, you understand someone’s pain even if you haven’t felt that pain yourself. So if a friend’s pet died, you may not relate to the grief that the friend is feeling but you do acknowledge his or her emotions.

But the feeling of sympathy stops there. It may not be powerful enough to end the suffering, but it’s still a way of communicating one’s feelings.

While it’s easy to send a sympathy card or offer words of sympathy to that friend, it takes more effort to be compassionate.

Compassion, in this case, is asking the friend what he or she needs, or offering to do something to lessen the burden.

Perhaps, the compassionate you may step in to help him/her with the burial process. But even though there is more effort in being compassionate, it doesn’t get the best of you. It doesn’t wear you out or drain your energy.

The best part is – compassion can be practiced and enhanced through mindful practices. One, in particular, is the practice of metta meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, which is one of the best beginner meditation techniques I like to recommend.

Much research has been done on how meditation can increase compassion and one theory stands that mindfulness and meditation of any type increase awareness of your surroundings.

As a result, you’ll have a better ability to view a situation from the perspectives of others.

Also, you’ll be able to respond to negative situations with kindness and compassion. When there are more compassionate people, the world will be filled with kindness and will become a better place.

So, if you want to be more compassionate rather than sympathetic, try becoming more mindful and practice meditation regularly.

It doesn’t hurt to extend kindness to anyone – friend, foe, or stranger.

Compassion Is A Deep Emotion

Michele Leno, PhD, Licensed Psychologist

Compassion and sympathy are sometimes used interchangeably, but they are not one and the same.

Compassion is a deep emotion that leads to a desire to help alleviate a person’s distress. An employer may afford an employee the opportunity to work a flex schedule in order to accommodate parenting needs. This is compassion.

Sympathy, while very important, may occur on a more surface level. Just knowing that someone has encountered a loss is enough for us to express sorrow or sympathy.

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