Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy – How do they differ and work!

Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy – How do they differ and work! May 22, 2024
Compassion in action


One of my co-worker, a very down-to-earth, practical person, thought of himself as being emotional in his orientation. I have always considered him to be one full of of rich emotions, rather than an emotional person. Since there is indeed a vast difference between the two, he was pleasantly surprised when I proceeded to enlighten him. I then grasped how important it is to differentiate between sympathy, empathy and compassion. People often confuse one with another, and end up not knowing how to respond to those who face negative situations or need help!

Empathy and sympathy are words that many use interchangeably. They are near cousins, but truly differ vastly from one another. In every field and aspect related to human care, such as the medical field or allied professions, empathy is touted over sympathy as being the needed emotion. Why so?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary: Sympathy, constructed from the Greek sym, meaning “together,” and pathos, referring to feelings or emotion. It is used when one person shares the feelings of another. Example, one experiences sadness when someone close is experiencing grief or loss.

Empathy is a newer word also related to “pathos.” It differs from sympathy in that carries an implication of greater emotional distance. With empathy, you can imagine or understand how someone might feel. Yet, you may not or need not necessarily have those feelings yourself.

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Sympathy or Empathy | Freepik


Sympathy is the feeling of pity or sorrow for someone else. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. So, empathy is a much deeper feeling than sympathy, as it connects you with the other person. Sympathy is subjective and often causes one to become emotionally blinded, and patronizing. It creates a divide between you and the other person – that you are lucky, you have come past the problem, but they are unlucky and still struggling.

Empathy, on the other hand, is the ability to detect another’s emotions and deal with them in a beneficial manner. While being so, you are able to recognize and regulate your own emotions. It occurs in the here and now, and is seen or shown by immersing yourself in another person’s world, without making yourself into them. You retain your sense of self and know that you yourself are actually outside of the problem. Empathy is objective because it views information through logical criteria rather than personal opinion.

Sympathy is to understand what the other person is feeling; while Empathy is to experience what they are feeling. Sympathy is Expressed for the other person, whereas Empathy is Shared with the other person. Social psychologist and bestselling author Brené Brown says, Empathy drives connection and sympathy drives disconnection.

Sympathy will make us consider and commiserate with others, feel pity for them in their situation, but that is all we will do. Empathy, on the other hand, will enlarge our understanding of what they are going through. This sense will drive us to at least pray for them.

Hence, empathy is at the root of intercession since it enables us to really put ourselves in the other’s shoes. It helps sense their predicament without getting lost in our own emotions about it. We can uphold them in their infirmity because of our ability to identify with them. We can do so without getting entangled in our opinion or our judgment about the situation they are facing.
Jesus compassion | Google images

Divine Designated

Empathy will make us excusers and reconcilers, rather than accusers and destroyers of our own like the devil!

The Bible in Hebrews 4:15 notes that we have a High Priest Who can empathize with our weaknesses. He is therefore, able to make intercession for us. Jesus is able to advocate for us before the throne of grace just because He truly knows what we are going through. Even though He Himself is perfect and pure, He is not critical but understanding.

Now the Scriptures do not stop with declaring that the Lord empathizes and identifies with us in our weaknesses (for He Himself was made like us Heb 2:17-18). It also proclaims that the Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is full of compassion (Ps 116:5 NIV).

Compassion builds upon empathy and is one of the main motivators of altruism. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, or “suffering alongside” someone, is being more engaged than simple empathy. It is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object.

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Daily care | Freepik

Daily Duty

Sympathy is a feeling of sadness or pity for another person. Empathy is a one-on-one connection because of a deep understanding that comes from sharing an emotional experience. Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It is a broader sense of care for the world at large. Mark of compassion is the move to action!

The Gospel writers highlight Jesus being moved with compassion and always doing something to alleviate the suffering or need. He fed the multitude, healed the sick, opened blind eyes, made the lame to walk, raised the widow’s dead son, and shared the good news.

Apostle Paul writes to the churches urging them to, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Col 3:12 NIV). Compassion is to not stop with feeling or understanding but to go beyond to do something to relieve the suffering.

I think my friend whom I spoke about, is not just emotional as he thinks, but truly compassionate. I have seen him go out of his way to care for others. This makes him excel and stand out in his line of work. This inclination enables him to bring a new dimension to the highly competitive field of sales and medicine. It helps him operate with genuine concern rather than just an eye to profit and loss, even though that is his sphere of responsibility. Compassion helps him go the extra mile in his daily routine, bringing a care that brands him as a follower of Christ and a disciple of His teaching.

Like him, do take time to assess your potential, align your thinking, and feel free to be who you ought to be!

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