When we talk about compassion as a feeling or an attitude, it is of major importance to make a difference between sympathy, empathy and compassion.

They are not the same, but they are used by many people as synonyms. This creates confusion and undermines the real power of compassion.

Let’s look at an example. I will use the word ‘suffering’ here since that makes the example more clear. However, the same dynamics occur with smaller tensions.

Iris arrives at work and looks pale. Her colleague Mary notices this and asks if Iris is allright. Iris tells that she didn’t sleep at night because her son told her that his wife wants to divorce him. Iris says that she has been up all night wondering what she did wrong as a mother. She says she feels so hurt by her son and his wife.

Mary can react in several ways:

  • She says she is so sorry for Iris and starts sharing examples about how her son has mistreated her as well.
  • She feels the pain that Iris is going through, both as a mother and as a human being.
  • She listens to Iris, doesn’t participate in her complaining and asks her what she needs.

The first reaction is out of sympathy, the second out of empathy and the third out of compassion.

What is the difference between them?

Sympathy

When someone acts out of sympathy, (s)he doesn’t really connect with the other person. It is pity for them.

Many times there is also a disbalance: the one who is suffering is ‘smaller’ and the other person is ‘larger’. This can feel like a victim-savior or child-parent relationship for the listener.

The image that can be used is that Iris is in a dark pit and Mary pays her a short visit. Mary leaves Iris after a while.

Sometimes the one listening (in this case Mary) even hijacks the moment or someone else’s pain to focus the attention on themselves.

What happens a lot is that the listener needs to tell what happened to someone else. This might be perceived as gossiping, but what happens is that the listener needs to get rid of the energy of the one suffering. Since there was no real connection, the venting can be short and superficial.

Empathy

When someone acts out of empathy, (s)he makes an opposite movement than someone who sympathizes: a symbiosis with the feelings of the one who is suffering emerges.

In the case of empathy the listener perceives the other one (unconsciously) most of the time as small, needy or someone to pity. The result is that they end up in a similar pattern as in the case of sympathy. The other one is seen as a victim and they are a kind of savior, even if its just suffering along out of solidarity.

The image is that of Iris being in a pit. Mary joins her in the pit. Even when Mary leaves the pit after a while, she is still connected to the emotions of Iris.

What happens a lot is that the listener needs to tell what happened to someone else or need time and space for themselves. Again, this might be perceived as gossiping or being a weak person, but what happens is that the listener needs to get rid of the energy of the one suffering. Since a deep connection with the emotions was created, it takes effort and time to dispose of this energy.

Compassion

When someone acts out of compassion, something else happens. There is a connection with the person who is suffering, but not a symbiosis.

The person who is suffering is considered a powerful human being, not a weak victim.

The listener is in his or her center and can be with the pain and with the person who is suffering, without suffering along.

The goal is to help the one suffering find clarity about what (s)he needs and if possible / necessary provide that support.

The image that can be used is that Iris is in the pit and Mary is outside the pit. From that position Mary has a good perspective about solutions how Iris could get out of the pit. Mary is not dragged down by the energy of the pit, but is present for Iris.

As a result there is no need to vent afterwards, since there is no energy that needs to be discarded.

What is interesting is that the reaction of the person who is suffering will vary depending not only on whether you are responding out of sympathy, empathy or compassion, but also whether they consider themselves a victim or not.

Let’s go back to the example.

In this case Iris considers herself a victim. Depending on Mary’s choice, she will react in this way:

  • Sympathy: Iris will still feel the pain and nothing will change. There is a temporary relief since her suffering is acknowledged. If Mary hijacks the moment to complain about her own suffering, Iris will feel even more like a victim. She will add Mary’s unrespectful behavior to her list of things she is suffering from. Her feeling of suffering increases.
  • Empathy: Iris will feel a temporary relief because her suffering is acknowledged and her pain is shared. The relief is deeper and lasts a bit longer than with empathy, but is still temporary.
  • Compassion: Iris might get angry, because for a victim real compassion might feel cold or heartless. Victims actually don’t want help, they want their suffering to be acknowledged. They want the other person in the pit together with them. They are not really focused on solutions (yet). So if someone is not connecting with their suffering, they might get angry. Iris can be hurting more now, since she considers Mary’s behaviour as a rejection and adds that to her list of things that causes her to suffer.

In other words, in the case of someone feeling like a victim, the best solution is to receive empathy. However, for the one who empathizes, this can be a draining experience.

That is the reason that many people working in healthcare get burned out. The words that are used to describe this phenomenon are ‘compassion fatigue’. However, it is not about compassion, but about empathy. It is actually ‘empathy distress’. As long as we keep using empathy and compassion as synonyms, this problem might never be solved.

Now, let’s change the example a bit.

This time Iris doesn’t feel like a victim. This is the situation:

Iris arrives at work and looks pale. Her colleague Mary notices this and asks if Iris is allright. Iris tells that she didn’t sleep at night because her son told her that his wife wants to divorce him. Iris says that she has been up all night because she was thinking of how she could support her son and his wife to go through the coming period.

Mary can react in several ways:

  • She says she is so sorry for Iris and starts sharing examples about how her own daughter in law is unfair towards her son.
  • She feels the pain that Iris is going through, both as a mother and as a human being.
  • She listens to Iris and asks her what she needs.

The response of Iris will be different since she doesn’t see herself as a victim:

  • Sympathy: Iris gets angry, because she doesn’t want to be seen as a victim and she doesn’t want Mary to hijack the moment to talk about the things that make Mary unhappy.
  • Empathy: Iris feels sad, because she feels misunderstood. She doesn’t want to be seen as a victim.
  • Compassion: Iris feels supported. A solution might be found or not. For Iris the most important aspect is that she is seen as a (powerful) human being, not a helpless victim. This gives her strength to face her suffering and find the courage to ask for the support she needs.

In the case of someone who doesn’t feel like a victim, the best support is to receive compassion.

Now let’s go back to the first case where Iris felt like a victim.

This is a more difficult situation. As the one giving support sympathy and empathy are not an option. When you sympathize nothing changes and empathy might drain you. Being compassionate is the only approach that is left. However, the other person might get angry with you. So you might want to refrain from being compassionate as well.

If you want to support the other person, I invite you to stick with the compassion approach.

Why? In the first place because this is the only approach that is sane for you. You don’t pick up the energy from the other person. So it doesn’t affect you and you don’t have to get rid of it by venting or taking time for yourself to recuperate.

In the second place because it might help them to get out of victim mode. That can happen during the time you spend together. If they are stuck in victim mode it can take much longer time. This can be the next day or week. Or maybe they need a few more compassionate moments with you before the leave the path of victimhood.

My invitation is to stay in compassion mode, whatever happens. That is the only way to stay healthy yourself and get results.

As a quick reminder, this is a visual representation of how people feel when they are involved in sympathy, empathy and compassion.

Feel free to share your point of view below.

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