What is the difference between empathy, sympathy and compassion?

Empathy means you feel what a person feels. Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling. Compassion is the desire to alleviate the suffering of others.


Empathy means that you feel deeply what others feel. Researchers have considered "mirror neurons" are in action, empathy can arise automatically when you witness someone with pain. For example, if you see someone slammed a finger in the door, you may also feel pain in your fingers. That feeling means that your mirror neuron has kicked in.

You may not always automatically know how another feels, and that is when you have to use your imagination. You've probably heard the phrase, "Put yourself in the shoes of others". It is the second way to be an empathic person.

If you saw someone slammed fingers in a car door but you didn't automatically feel that pain, you can feel empathy by imagining how it might be to get your fingers in a door, and that can let you feel the pain.

Empathy is not just for unpleasant emotions. You can feel empathic when you see someone happy too. If you see someone laughing, you usually laugh back automatically. And get a good feeling.


It is not easy to distinguish between sympathy and empathy. The biggest difference is that when you feel sympathy, you do not feel another's feeling. Instead, you can understand what the person feels. For example, if someone's father has passed away, you may not be able to feel personally pain in a heartfelt way. However, you can use your cognitive skills to understand that your friend is sad.

It makes sense to send sympathy cards when you understand that someone is suffering. You do not know that person's pain, but you want them to know that you are aware of their suffering.


Compassion takes empathy and sympathy one step further. When you have compassion you feel the pain of others (empathy) or aware that the person has pain (sympathy) and then you do your best to relieve the person suffering from that situation.

When you have compassion, you do not run away from suffering, you do not feel overwhelmed by suffering, and you do not pretend that suffering does not exist. When you practice compassion you can be present with suffering.

Compassion is a four-step process:

- Awareness of suffering.

- Sympathetic worries related to being emotionally affected by suffering.

- Want to see the relief of that suffering.

- Susceptibility or readiness to help alleviate suffering.

Because of the above four steps, it is important that you practice your attention. This is meaningful because you cannot feel the suffering of others unless you are in the present.

Has anyone really listened to you when you talk about a problem? This person listened without trying to fix your problem, and this person was not related to their own life or emotions. He / she listened without judging.

The simple act of listening with your full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts you can offer. Unfortunately, compassionate listening has become increasingly rare, as technology and media can draw your attention away.

An important difference between empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you often feel pain in another, you may experience overwhelming or burnout.

However, compassion is a renewable resource. When you have the ability to feel empathy for the other person, but then hand out a hand to relieve someone's pain, you are less likely to be burned out.

Research suggests that compassion and empathy activate different regions of the brain and compassion can help when you are overwhelmed by empathy.


"If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion."