Compassion vs Empathy vs Sympathy. What’s the Difference?

While empathy, compassion, and sympathy are three words that many people use interchangeably — they are, in fact, not synonymous with one another.

To help us recognize the difference between the three, we asked experts to share their insights.

Table of Contents

Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA

doug noll

Lawyer | Professional Mediator

Compassion is a feeling of non-judgmental concern for the distress of another

I explain compassion to my students this way: Imagine you are holding a baby and it poops. Now, you are holding a poopy, stinky baby. Get that image and feeling. You might say something like, “Oh, baby, you just pooped and you are stinky. Let’s see about changing you out so you feel better.”

The feeling you experience is concern love, non-attachment, and non-judgment. Imagine the situation and the feeling that will come up for you is compassion.

Compassion may or may not motivate you to take action to help, depending on the circumstances and your relationship to the distressed person or animal. Compassion emerges naturally with empathy and is not a skill that can be learned.

Empathy occurs when you experience the feeling and emotions of another

About 20% of humans are highly sensitive and feel everything going on around them. For untrained empaths, this can be overwhelming and debilitating. Even highly empathic people need to be trained to master empathy.

About 75% of humans have the capacity for empathy and do not experience empathy. They must be taught the skills of cognitive and affective empathy.

I teach these skills to peacemakers, mediators, and people who wish to de-escalate emotional situations quickly and efficiently. For this group of humans, empathy is not natural nor innate. It must be learned and mastered.

The final 5% of the population are not empathic at all because they cannot feel or describe feelings and emotions. Typically, these people have brain systems that do not function properly or are atrophied.

Empathy is a skill that must be learned and mastered. Very few people develop strong empathic skills on their own.

Sympathy occurs when you perceive someone else’s distress and you attempt to comfort them

Sympathy is socially acceptable but is an extremely poor and weak way of dealing with others’ distress. Typically, sympathy is “I” centered, such as, “I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.”

Related: What to Say When Someone Says Sorry for Your Loss

The idea is that an expression of sympathy builds solidarity and support. Common experience teaches us otherwise. Sympathy is expressed by people who have no clue about how we are feeling, what losses we have suffered, and what pain we are in.

Sympathy generally soothes the anxiety of the sympathetic person without validating the pain of the distressed person. Sympathy also allows you to remain emotionally distant from the distressed person.

An emotionally competent person with use empathy and compassion and never sympathy. Emotionally incompetent people will use sympathy and never get to empathy or compassion.

Dr. Malorie Schneider

Malorie Schneider

Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Greater Things

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Words that are commonly used interchangeably but do they really mean the same thing? Absolutely not!

While there is a common factor—they all have to do with feelings regarding someone in a difficult situation—that is the extent of similarity among these words. To illustrate, imagine you have just been let go from your job.

You call up three different friends to talk to about this unexpected change in your life and here are the responses from each friend:

Friend #1: “Wow! That really sucks.”

Friend #2: “Wow! I imagine you are feeling hurt and disappointed…maybe even a bit lost about what to do now.”

Friend #3: “Wow! I imagine you are feeling hurt and disappointed…maybe even a bit lost about what to do now. I can come over and talk with you and maybe we can work on some ideas of what your next steps could be.”

Three friends, three responses. As you read them, which one would you want to hear if you had lost your job?

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone’s misfortune. Friend number one responded with sympathy.

Empathy is feeling with someone. Friend number two responded with empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person.

Finally, friend number three responded with compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin to suffer along with.

Compassion is empathy taken to the next level in that one understands and shares the feelings of another and has a desire to alleviate the suffering.

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are similar yet different. One is not necessarily better than the other. Depending on our relationship with someone, the appropriate response may very well be sympathy while in another circumstance it maybe empathy.

For relationships we hold near and dear, compassion will go much further than either sympathy or empathy.

Cory Colton

cory colton

Executive Coach, Inflection Point Coaching, LLC

The concepts of sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably however there are distinct differences between the two—how they create reactions within us, and how they allow us to be present and respond.

Sympathy means that you have faced, felt, and processed the experiences that another is having at the moment

Sympathy, if used well is a helpful emotion as it can create an understanding between two people. Where sympathy might not be helpful is when the receiver has mirrored emotions that cause them to get stuck in their own thoughts and feelings about the experience of the giver.

Visually, this means that the receiver is stuck in their own space and unable to step into the perspective of the talker. While there is understanding, there is no shared experience at the moment.

Empathy, while like sympathy in most respects, is what I call a “catch and release” exercise for the receiver

While the two parties still may have a shared understanding of an event or experience, the receiver is able to align with the feelings and emotions, and then release their own internal response, and step fully into the perspective of the talker.

It allows the receiver to hold space for the talker, to access curiosity, and to offer help. Without being able to release the receiver’s own internal response one is stuck in sympathy which is not helpful for the other person at the moment.

Compassion is the impulse to act to relieve the suffering or pain of another

Compassion is based upon the compassionate person having empathy for the talker. Without empathy, there is no impulse since the receiver, being simply sympathetic, is stuck in their own experience.

People in the helping professions–leaders, coaches, nurses, physicians, and other healthcare workers– are most effective for the people they help when they can not only align with and understand the experience of another but can catch and release their own internal response and allow the impulse to relieve the other’s pain and suffering.

Stacey Henson, LCSW, ACSW

Stacey Henson

Community Outreach Coordinator, The Recovery Village

Understanding the difference between compassion, empathy and sympathy should start with how they are similar. They are all words that we use to convey a sense of emotionality or connection with another living being. Many people use these words interchangeably, but they are distinctly different.

Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity or sorry or having a common feeling with another

Possibly due to shared experiences or situations. Having sympathy for someone doesn’t mean that you feel what they feel, but that you understand why they feel bad.

We often use this word when someone dies or gets a divorce. It’s such a commonly used word that there is an entire card section entitled “Sympathy Cards.”

Empathy is having the ability to understand or share the feelings with another

This can come through having intellectual or experiential knowledge of emotional reactions to events (a therapist can have empathy because they understand how a traumatic event can impact someone – especially with good clinical work) or to truly feeling another’s emotions.

Many people that identify as an empath may find themselves feeling exhausted or emotionally drained because of their ability to truly feel with someone. It can be important to be able to keep someone else’s feelings separate from yours.

Compassion is feeling for someone and having a willingness to relieve their pain

Compassion is a way of feeling for someone, not feeling with them, having a willingness or desire to relieve their pain. Compassionate people often take things to a different level where it often compels someone to act on the circumstances and to act to better the situation.

Gray Robinson

James Gray Robinson

Author | Attorney, Lawyer Lifeline | Mindfulness & Relationship Expert | Transformational Speaker

Sympathy, empathy, and compassion are three words that are often mistakenly used interchangeably. However, they reflect the different ways we can feel about the world we perceive.

They are all admirable traits, but in a sense, they describe different degrees about how we feel about the suffering of others.

Sympathy is an understanding of what is happening to others

Sympathy is an understanding of what is happening to others, but not necessarily with any feeling about what we understand. It is more of an intellectual grasping of what we perceive. We can be sympathetic without feeling what another is feeling.

Empathy is feeling what we think others are feeling

Empathy is not only an intellectual understanding of what another is experiencing, it is actually feeling what we think they are feeling. In other words, if we perceive someone to be sad, we are sad as well. If someone is grieving, we grieve as well.

Compassion is when we want to relieve the suffering others perceive and feel

Compassion is one step further, to the extent that not only do we sympathize and empathize, but we also want to relieve the suffering we perceive and feel. It is the action step of helping or serving another in suffering that differentiates compassion from sympathy and empathy.

If one were to see a child with no legs, sympathy would recognize that the child was physically challenged but we may not necessarily feel their suffering.

If we empathize with that child, we would imagine how we would feel if we had no legs and feel that way. Compassion would lead us to help that child in some way.

Salina Schmidgall, PLPC, NCC

Salina Schmidgall

Mental Health Therapist | Founder, Lotus Rising

Sympathy is feeling sorry for someone

Sympathy does not require you to feel the other person’s feelings. It put’s up a wall between you and the other person. Sympathy says, “Cheer up with will get better.”

It can be dismissive of the real problem at hand. Sympathy shows up when we become uncomfortable with the other person’s emotions and we want them to go away.

Empathy is when you feel with someone

When true empathy is at play you sit with their feeling. You hold their feelings with them. Empathy says, “That sounds really painful. I don’t really know what to say but can I sit with you?”

Empathy doesn’t make it about you but rather allows you to try to understand exactly how that person feels.

Compassion is empathy plus action

When someone is compassionate it means that they are advocating, standing up for, or fighting for something.

A compassionate person is empathetic towards someone and wants to get involved so the problem can be solved or the situation is made better.

Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP

Justin Baksh

Licensed Mental Heath Counselor | Chief Clinical Officer, Foundations Wellness Center

Compassion is the awareness of someone’s feelings, empathy is feeling those feelings, and sympathy is relating to but not feeling them.

These terms seem almost interchangeable, but in reality, they can and should be used independently – or collectively, depending on the situation.

Compassion prompts your brain to be aware

Compassion is a “pre” and “during” tool. It’s kind of an informational sign for your brain that there is something going on that you might want to know about: Another person around you is in need. It’s like a yield sign or the guy changing the tie on the side of the road that everyone’s got to stop and take a look at.

Empathy can be considered as having felt that same emotion or feeling before

You may not be able to fully associate with the context, but the emotion is 100% relatable and you can feel it.

Think of 9/11/2001 (as this is written, it’s the 19th anniversary of this date). The majority of Americans weren’t in New York, but most of us felt the pain that was being experienced on ground zero. The despair, horror, and loss… The intensity might be different, but the base emotions are the same.

Sympathy is the shoulder to cry on

You can be present and supportive to the person, but the emotion or feeling does not resonate with you. You’re the friendly ear to talk with, the shoulder to cry on, or the grounding presence for someone. You can only be these things if you are not impacted by the other person’s feelings or experience.

So even though we use these interchangeably, in most cases, there are actual differences that can be noted… and all are useful emotions that are critical in maintaining connections to other humans.

Michael Toebe

michael toebe

Reputation Specialist

Sympathy is recognizing when someone is hurting or suffering

It’s paying attention and expressing that we realize it must be a painful situation for them. We know, as fellow human beings, that their situation must be difficult.

This can be a social expectation of our upbringing to show kindness to someone, in good character, and express that we want their situation to turn around in a positive way.

Empathy is thinking about what we would feel if we put ourselves in other people’s shoes

Empathy is more. It is when we put ourselves in other people’s shoes and think about how we would feel if we were experiencing what they are experiencing

In doing this, we feel the hurt in some similar way. Maybe we too have experienced what they have and remember the pain. We hurt a little more for them when we feel empathy than we might when we feel sympathy.

Sympathy is more surface level. Empathy is deeper. It’s a recognition of our shared humanity.

Compassion is having the motivation to help and do something to relieve someone’s hurt or suffering

Compassion is a higher level of humanity. It’s the intrinsic motivation to do something to help and then doing it, to contribute to relieving someone’s hurt or suffering.

We act on our empathy in our shared humanity to do what we see is needed and we are able to do or decide to do to improve someone’s situation.

This can take the form of words, listening patiently and in an engaging manner, offering assistance with time, money, collaboration, influence, or persuasion to lift someone up.

Lambers Fisher, MA, LMFT

lambers fisher

Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist

When it comes to expressing care for those who are in physical or emotional pain, it is common to use the words empathy, sympathy, and compassion synonymously; however, in practice, they convey different meanings.

Empathy is when a person understands and cares about another person’s pain that they can feel the same feelings

“I feel your pain along with you.”

Empathy has the potential to help a person not only feel cared for in their feelings, but also less alone in the experience of those feelings.

Sympathy is when a person cares about another person’s feelings even though they aren’t sharing the experience of those feelings

“I understand your pain beside you.”

Sympathy is often motivated by someone acknowledging that while they may not have shared the exact same experience that generated another person’s feelings, they have had similar experiences that help them relate to and understand enough to provide care in ways specific to those feeling and resulting needs.

Compassion means while I may not have similar feelings, I care about you to try to help relieve your pain and discomfort

“I want to help relieve your pain for you.”

Compassion opens the door for everyone to show care to people with whom they have had completely different experiences but are nonetheless clearly in discomfort and need of support.

While empathy, sympathy, and compassion may each be most needed and appreciated in different ways and under varying circumstances, the more we appreciate the unique differences of each, the more of a positive impact we can have in our efforts to not only validate the legitimacy of others’ feelings, but also improve the lives, experiences, and feelings of others as well.

Compassion is the ability to connect with your own heart while recognizing the heart of someone else and their experience

It is an acknowledgment of love between individuals – one who suffers and one who does not suffer. Compassion brings to the surface the most important aspect during times of difficulty and uncertainty: remember the love in your own heart and the hearts of others and take action from that place.

Sympathy is the ability to acknowledge the pain of another without taking on the pain and suffering of another

It is acknowledging what is felt during a challenging time by saying, “I see you and your pain and I will hold love for you instead of pain.” You can be aware of suffering without becoming suffering.

Empathy is the ability to connect with your own feelings of pain while knowing these same feelings are present in others

In that, you share a similar experience and/or emotion around such an experience. It is being on the same level of the difficult emotions and difficult experience because you also have experienced, or are experiencing, such difficulty. Empathy is another expression of authenticity that says, “I am similar to you.”

At the base of compassion, sympathy and empathy is love.

Pervis Taylor, III, M.A.

Pervis Taylor

Life Coach | Inspirational Speaker | Author, “Surthrival Mode

Interestingly, versus is a cultural phenomenon on social media where superstar artists or producers are pitted against each other to see who’s catalog of music wins.

However, there are instances where there’s no debate or versus to be had. Because one is just simply superior to the others. That’s how I feel about Compassion vs. Empathy vs. Sympathy.

Compassion is the creme de la creme when it comes to human altruism

\Compassion wins over empathy and sympathy. Compassion is rooted in an immersion of kindness and love that compels one to not only identify emotionally, mentally, and spiritually, but physically in the form of helping.

For example, when Hurricane Katrina happened, people filled with compassion gave money, food, and shelter to the survivors. Some went as far as to open their homes up to complete strangers. Compassion goes beyond.

Empathy provides a deep emotional connection

Empathy, to its credit, is powerful. Moreover, being able to take on the emotional bandwidth a person could be experiencing. Thus a person doesn’t feel ‘alone’ in their experience.

The challenge is that one could get stuck there. Being able to connect with a person’s experience is great, but if there’s no resolve, it can be fruitless.

Sympathy is a basic human response to hardship in others

When you see a person struggling, you may feel sorry for them. That’s it. You may not invest any more mindshare or heart share on the matter.

Sympathy isn’t bad. We just want to graduate to a place of compassion if we want the world to change.

Kamini Desai

Kamini Desai

International Personal Development Educator | Author

Compassion comes from a place of recognition of wholeness

That even though we may appear separate on one level, we are one humanity on another. Compassion arises out of this recognition – that we are on a common path as humanity, we are more similar than different and that we feel for one another along that common journey.

Empathy is feeling what the other feels

So much so that the person may not even be able to distinguish between the others feelings and their own. Or, the others’ feelings become their own.

I find this is most common among highly sensitive people. Not only do they have compassion, but they take on the pain of the other – often out of compassion. However, it can also work against the person as they can take on the burdens of others.

I think of sympathy as feeling for the other, but not becoming the feeling themselves.

Coltrane Lord

Coltrane Lord

Sacred Intimacy & Relationship Expert

While sympathy, empathy and compassion are all similarly rooted in a feeling of connection with another person, each differ greatly in the depth of this connection.

It’s important to know the difference, and profoundly impactful if you can go from sympathy and empathy to the higher vibration of compassion.

Sympathy is understanding another person’s pains or fears through a variety of experiences, not necessarily personal

Movies or stories about breakups, injustice, depression can help us understand a pain without us ever having gone through it ourselves.

To have sympathy is to be more detached than having empathy or compassion. In some spiritual circles, sympathy can be seen as an arrogant expression. Sympathy is cognitive.

Empathy is when you can feel the same loss or happiness because you can imagine yourself in their shoes

Empathy is when you can actually feel the same wound or loss or fear or happiness viscerally in the body because you either went through something similar, or you can imagine yourself in their shoes. Your mirror neurons kick in, and you actually feel sensation in the body.

Empathy offers a closer connection, and the ability to hold sacred space for the person in need. Empathy is embodied.

Compassion is a combination of sympathy (mind), empathy (body), plus a deeper connection at the soul level

With compassion, you see and feel the other as yourself. You also see the other in connection to all humanity.

Compassion means “to suffer with,” which helps you to viscerally feel and understand what the other person is going through at a core level which allows you to engage in the right action to support the person in need. Compassion is soulful.

Terry McDougall

terry mcdougall

Executive Career Coach

Empathy and compassion are related in that both of them pertain to the ability to relate to the feelings of another person. What differentiates compassion from empathy is the desire to help the person.

Sympathy is the recognition of another person’s feelings, but without feeling them yourself

There’s more of a separation and perhaps even judgment with sympathy. Sympathy can be received as somewhat condescending by the person who is receiving it, while empathy and compassion can come across as much more caring because the person senses that they are seen and understood.

Compassionate and empathetic people literally “feel for” or “experience with” the person in pain.

Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani

Mental Health Columnist, E-Counseling

Compassion, empathy, and sympathy share the quality of caring about someone’s unhappiness. These emotional categories are different from each other because of the response involved.

Empathy is full consciousness or awareness of someone else’s miserable experience

Empathy is a function of our higher mind, at once transcendental and rational, fully conscious awareness of someone else’s miserable experience. It’s as if the empathic person had been in their place.

Empathic people who feel sadness, joy, confusion, or clarity, almost any mood, would still care about unhappy others. They understand the other person’s perspective.

That level of concern or sensitivity prompts empathic people to create personal bonds with people in need of help or rescue. Some empathic people might create or join social organizations to help anyone in such circumstances.

Compassion is about wanting to ease emotional, physical, and/or mental pain

Compassionate people might inconvenience themselves to minimize or to end someone else’s pain, it bothers them so much. Compassionate people make great neighbors, friends, colleagues, and relatives.

Sympathy is about feeling pity or sadness about someone’s misfortune

Sympathy is understanding the situation from the damaged person’s perspective. But unlike compassionate or empathic people, sympathetic people don’t necessarily take action to help the affected person. They don’t sense a need from within to do that.

As life goes on, all of us tend to fit one category or another. It isn’t always necessary to take action. Some problems are self-correcting. Or, we remain calm by knowing that the affected people will access helpful existing resources, obviating a sympathetic person’s involvement.

Sometimes we feel compelled to “do something” about someone’s circumstances – resources or not, and at other times we won’t.

A person who is compassionate, empathic, or sympathetic is being nice, socially adjusted, and socially acceptable. We adjust our responses to people and to their situations based on our ability or inability to help them, our level of insight or our lack of insight, and perhaps a lack of impetus. Sometimes it is a matter of physical and emotional health for the potential helper, too.

Alex Echols

Alex Echols

Certified Teacher, Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute

The difference between compassion, empathy and sympathy can make a world of difference when there is someone who is going through a tough time or period in their life. Take this illustration for example: imagine someone is walking along a hiking path in the forest and they come across another person who somehow got their foot stuck in a bear trap.

The sympathetic response would be to say something along the lines of ‘oh, poor guy – I hope he feels better’ while continuing on their way – much like a lot of us do when passing homeless people on the street.

The empathetic response would be felt more on a physical level even for the observer because our brains cannot tell the difference between what’s happening for the person in pain and what’s happening for us at the same time.

This is because of a phenomenon called neuron mirroring. And while they may say something supportive like ‘Ah man, it looks like you’re hurting right now. That really sucks!’ – they may not necessarily be prompted into action to help the person in need.

Compassion helps us to become aware of the difficulty someone may be experiencing and motivates us into action

This is because compassion is not only about wishing the best for others, but also about doing what we can to help them.

But here’s the fascinating twist on developing greater compassion. Most of the time, it will be empathy that we will initially feel for others and when we feel into this enough, it becomes the doorway to not only wishing, but also being the difference for others and getting into action through compassion.

That’s what separates compassion vs empathy vs sympathy, and this is something that each of us can continue to develop more of every day.

Alison Wilson

Alison Wilson

Life Coach | Founder, The Little Blog Of Positivity

These three terms do tend to get used interchangeably; however, there are some subtle differences.

With sympathy, you are expressing sorrow and understanding of someone

Typically for a loss of some kind, or if they are grieving. Sympathy is where you understand what someone is going through. You can imagine but don’t feel their pain.

Empathy is feeling the person’s emotions as if they were your own

Empathy is closely related to sympathy in that your behaviours towards the other person may be similar (e.g. expressing sorrow and understanding). With empathy, however, you feel the person’s emotions as if they were your own.

You can imagine being in their shoes and you may, for example, cry as they are doing (or laugh, as empathy can also apply in positive situations).

Compassion is acknowledging the needs of others and taking steps to help them out

Compassion may be coupled with sympathy or empathy or maybe visible by itself.
Compassion is about the actions you take, for example by being conscious of the needs of individuals and taking steps to help them out.

Ajay Dahiya

ajay dahiya

Former Monk | Founder, The Pollination Project

In a simplistic way, we can think of these three concepts as a continuum of how we relate to the human experience of others.

  • Sympathy is the weaker of these bonds, in that feeling pity for the suffering of others can sometimes be rather disempowering.
  • Empathy is next on the spectrum, as we begin to understand someone else’s pain not just logically, but also emotionally. Empathy is a connective force for relationships and, I believe, for society. But, to me, the highest calling is compassion.
  • Compassion is activated empathy; it means not only do I feel your pain, but I want to do something about it.

In my work, I hope to advance the next evolution of compassion. I believe this is “compassion consciousness,” which is a lifestyle that invites us to think through the impact of our choices, large and small, and the degree to which they build a more compassionate world.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is one of these emotions more important than the others? 

It’s challenging to determine if one emotion is more important than the others, as compassion, empathy, and sympathy each serve essential roles in human relationships and personal growth. They are interconnected and often complement one another. 

Prioritizing one over the others may not be the most effective approach; instead, focusing on cultivating all three in a balanced manner is more beneficial for overall emotional well-being and interpersonal connections.

Are compassion, empathy, and sympathy innate or learned?

Compassion, empathy, and sympathy are a combination of innate and learned traits. 

While humans are born with the potential for these emotional capacities, they require social experiences and nurturing environments to develop fully. 

Different individuals may have varying levels of natural predispositions, but anyone can enhance these emotional skills with intentional practice and education.

How can I practice developing more compassion, empathy, and sympathy in my daily life?

Active listening: Focus on understanding the other person’s perspective and feelings without judgment. Pay attention to verbal and non-verbal cues, and ask open-ended questions to encourage deeper conversation.

Practice mindfulness: Develop self-awareness and emotional intelligence through mindfulness practices like meditation, yoga, or journaling. This will help you become more in tune with your emotions and the emotions of others.

Put yourself in others’ shoes: Regularly imagine yourself in another person’s situation, and try to understand their emotions, challenges, and perspectives.

Educate yourself: Learn about different cultures, backgrounds, and experiences to broaden your understanding of others and foster a deeper sense of empathy and compassion.

Offer support and help: Extend your support to others in need, whether through volunteering, lending a listening ear, or providing a helping hand.

Are there any potential downsides to being overly compassionate, empathetic, or sympathetic?

While compassion, empathy, and sympathy are vital for healthy relationships and personal growth, there can be potential downsides to being overly compassionate, empathetic, or sympathetic. These may include:

Emotional burnout: Taking on too much emotional burden from others can lead to exhaustion, stress, and a decreased ability to help those in need effectively.

Enabling negative behavior: Excessive compassion and empathy may unintentionally enable harmful behaviors in others by not setting appropriate boundaries or providing constructive feedback.

Neglecting self-care: Overly focusing on the needs of others can result in neglecting your own emotional and physical well-being, which is essential for maintaining overall health and balance.

Loss of objectivity: An overly sympathetic mindset might make it difficult to maintain objectivity or make rational decisions, especially in challenging situations.

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