Dayna Sharp, LCSW
Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
People often use these words nearly interchangeably, but in the therapy room, the meanings of these words are quite different from one another. Each can bring a different tone, a different experience for the person sitting on the couch--and not all of them are positive! So what are they, how are they different, and how can they help people heal? That's what today's post is all about!
According to Google's dictionary, the definition of "Sympathy" is as follows: "Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune". Now, sitting with that definition, imagine yourself...with your therapist...talking about an extremely painful, maybe somewhat embarrassing experience in your life. You look up, to find your therapist looking at you with sorrow in their eyes and pity on their face. Suddenly, you feel quite small and a million miles away from them. You are sitting alone with that experience and its painful all over again.
Sympathy can feel condescending at worst and lonely at best. No one wants to be the person who has to be felt bad for.
Empathy is different, in that it is the experience of feeling with another person. Taking a step out of your own shoes and putting yourself into theirs. Now imagine this scenario, again, sitting with this definition. You are again, with your therapist, talking about an extremely painful, slightly embarrassing experience in your life. You look up to see your therapist's face, which appears somewhat pained. After a moment of silence, you hear your therapist say "That was such a painful experience. And I wonder if part of you felt embarrassed... Sometimes when we're overcome with embarrassment or shame, we feel like we have to pull ourselves together, to protect our dignity...and we never get to grieve those painful experiences...". Your therapist is right there with you. They get it! You have re-visited the pain, but it was infinitely less painful.
This is empathy. Empathy is connection, and fosters healing.
Compassion is another necessary component to healing, but is vastly different from Sympathy or Empathy. Compassion with Sympathy is again, condescending and distancing. It can evoke a desire to help, or to "fix" something by being kind. So again, you're there, pain and embarrassment, therapist has a look of pity, you're alone, a million miles away and your therapist says "But look at how resilient you are! It's amazing!". Is that a "kind" response? Yes. Is it helpful?....Yes. But does it feel good? No! It completely dismisses your feelings about the event and sends a message that your therapist does not want to talk about negative experiences, only positive ones. This can be very difficult for survivors of abuse and trauma who were never allowed to acknowledge what happened to them.
Compassion without empathy? Also no. Maybe not really even possible. How can you begin to act with true compassion if you haven't first taken a moment to really feel what the other person is feeling? It's not possible, and is therefore not compassionate at all.
Healing Happens through Empathy and Compassion!
Healing our relationships, healing ourselves begins with a position of empathy paired with compassion. Making space to slow down, to listen our loved ones, to listen ourselves, to acknowledge difficult experiences and feelings--even when we don't want to or its hard to do so. Stepping outside of oneself, to make space for feeling with our loved one--to imagine how we must have felt in our younger selves, how it feels for our present selves to carry past emotional burdens. This is what Creating Space is about. Doesn't everyone need a little more empathy and compassion in their lives?
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