Recently I was trying to explain the difference between empathy, sympathy and compassion to someone who obviously doesn’t feel any of these things when thinking about friends, family or the world at large.
My conversation with this person wasn’t going well and it was on an afternoon where I didn’t particularly feel good to begin with, so my frustration levels were high. My friend was complaining yet again about the circumstances of her life and at some point I couldn’t take it any more and said , “Please stop and look who you are complaining to” and she shot back “So you want me to feel sorry for you”. I said the last thing that I want is your pity. I want your understanding and compassion for my situation, not your pity.
She was dumbfounded and didn’t know the difference and when I added that you are the least empathetic person I know, that really threw her. I realized that at 50+ years old, she really didn’t feel for other people and other conversations started replaying in my mind about when she only cared about how events affected her well being and not the world at large.
I have been told at times that I am an extremely empathetic person and have always been criticized for that when I was in the workforce. I would constantly put myself in other people’s shoes and really understand the predicament they were in. I do it in life too, but it always came up as a negative on my performance reviews (but all my superiors were men and men as a group are generally less empathetic than women). I never considered empathy a negative as I believe it makes me a very caring and understanding person. It helps me get into the heads of people in my live and understand their actions and movements better. In my opinion, if you lack empathy, you have a deficit in understanding the emotional states of others.
So I’d rather be a feeling, considerate and compassionate person and care about my group of friends and family, as well as, the world at large, even if it causes me to worry at times for others. I feel sorry for my friend as she is missing out on connecting on a much deeper level with people and the universe. Maybe she isn’t really a friend, but just an acquaintance. I wonder if she knows the difference between those 2 words…
For others who never thought about the difference between these words:
Empathy is the ability to mutually experience the thoughts, emotions and direct experience of others. It goes beyond sympathy, which is a feeling of care and understanding for the suffering of others. Both words have similar usage but differ in their emotional meaning. Empathy invokes an understanding what others are feeling because you have experienced it yourself or can put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is acknowledging another person’s pain or hardships and providing comfort and assurance. Compassion is a very deep awareness of the suffering of another coupled with the wish to relieve it.