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Compassion vs Empathy Vs Sympathy vs Plain Horny

sympathy vs empathy vs compassion

What do Compassion, Empathy, Sympathy and being Horny have in common?  Imagine yourself driving on a busy freeway when you suddenly see a lovely lady pulled over, looking all distressed, gazing at the flat tire of her car… What goes through your mind? What do you do? Do you sympathize, empathize or employ compassion to help out?

You’ll notice as you read further that on the surface, what appear to be subtle differences in definitions can have dramatic results if you are on the receiving end. Let’s check out these concepts and then apply them to the “real life” example with the lady on the freeway to see the end result. (Sorry ladies, it is a known fact that most of you can change a tire but I need to use this scenario to help with a few examples).

Many people are actually quite confused about the meaning of all three concepts.  Just ask your friends and see what they say.  It’s because strict dictionary definitions have a hard time separating the feelings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion.  However if you research the words better and place them in the context they start to grow apart.  Why is it important to distinguish these terms?  One’s ability to control anger is directly related to recognizing various feelings and applying the correct techniques to overcome toxic emotions.

Empathy

Background: One of the most treasured method to manage anger in the West is developing empathy. Reason being is that this draws the energy away from our self focus and directs it outwardly, making us think about another being instead. Webster defines empathy as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…[whether they be sorrow or joy.] In short, this means “to feel for.” You understand your friend’s pain but are not emotional involved or attached to the mental state your friend is in.

Our Situation: You notice the situation and think: “Oh poor lady, she must be miserable, this is one flat tire, my heart goes out to her…” Then you either keep driving or stop and try to console her, “It’s OK this happens, be strong, someone will fix this.”

Sympathy

Background: Webster Dict. – “Sympathy is an emotional affinity in which whatever affects one correspondingly affects the other.” It implies a degree of equal feeling and viewing the situation similarly with another person. In short this means “to feel and suffer with.”

Unfortunately, sympathy is very popular among social circles with people who would rather sit and absorb each other’s pain, making no constructive effort to solve anything but rather feed on each other’s negativity and re-iforce it further, because now “many of us are angry at the same thing.”

Sympathy can feel like jumping into the pit with the other person and feeling their pain together. The problem is that now both of you are in the same pit.  When we sympathize we get emotionally invested in the problem and often fail to objectively assess the situation and are not able to use the same tools available to a clear minded person who has a dramatically broader panoramic view of the predicament at hand.  It can also be exhausting to feel what everyone else feels.

Our Situation: “Oh poor lady, I really feel her pain, I really wouldn’t want to be in her place.” Then you continue driving or stop and commiserate together, “Oh wow, this one time, my radiator blew up, I was on the freeway for two hours, this looks just like that… what are we gonna do, what’s going to happen now!?”

Sympathy’s synonym is “pity” but it would be wrong to confuse sympathy with its ugly cousin. If you look deeper, “pity” is truly a petty emotion. In most cases it perceives its object as suffering, inferior and unable to help themselves.

Interesting side note: In a study of how we judge & evaluate why things happen, researcher Bernard Weiner reviews the literature in support of the argument that sympathy and anger stem from very similar situations – those with negative outcomes. “The main difference is that when we judge a negative act to be someone’s responsibility, we feel anger; when we judge it not to be someone’s responsibility, we feel sympathy.”

Compassion

Background: Compassion is not clearly defined in psychological literature but a traditional dictionary definition is “a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.”

Perhaps you’ll agree that the key differences that accompany this this noble feeling are:

1. You are able to view the world through another being’s eyes, understand and relate to their predicament (even when you don’t agree with them).

2. You wish to help them by alleviating their suffering, be it negative feelings or unfortunate circumstances.

Many cultures view compassion as a basic human value but the ancient wisdom traditions of the East really treasure compassion as the crown jewel of all emotions. It is said that on the wings of compassion one’s soul will soar and happiness will be boundless.

Have you noticed, however, that this word is hardly ever used in our daily vocabulary? Perhaps it’s due to the fact that our Western culture places a large emphasis on fostering individuality and independence. Really, think about it, most people would rather read a “self-help” book than ask for advice from an experienced friend.

Similarly to sympathy, compassion also has an ugly cousin, which is compassion that lacks wisdom, or stupid compassion. The latter happens when you try to help someone without fully understanding their predicament and hurt them instead. A couple of examples come to mind like where one hands money to a homeless alcoholic who will clearly spend this dollar on booze or offering aspirin to someone who has an open bullet wound.

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” – old Chinese proverb by Lao Tzu

Neither of these actions would actually help the one in need. Therefore, the highest and most noble form of active compassion is always accompanied by wisdom and skillful means.

Our Situation: “Wow, what happened to this lady?  She must be miserable, this is one flat tire… No way she can do this on her own in this rain. Screw the meeting at 10 pm, I got to help her out!,” and you swerve through busy traffic and stop to check out what’s going on… You immediately asses the situation and ask if she has a wrench.  Then jump to work or phone AAA and use your credit to call in the truck.

No Sympathy, No Empathy, No Compassion, Just Plain Horny

Background: Perhaps this one requires no definition at all.  This was added here for fun to make an additional point that to sometimes, even when witnessing another being in distress, all of the above mentioned feelings can be either absent or polluted. For example helping someone with an ulterior motive to boost one’s ego, gain a certain status or result.

“Men have two emotions: Hungry and Horny. If you see him without an erection, make him a sandwich.” – Unknown :-)

Our situation: “Wow… check out the rack on this chick… Maybe I should stop to see what’s going on and see if I can get a date. It would be so sweet if I could just…., ah forget it, (by now) she’s in a rear view mirror anyways. Her mechanic though is the luckiest dude on earth!”

Conclusion

Sympathy, empathy and compassion have one thing in common – noticing a situation and realizing someone is in distress but they give rise to considerably different responses and can have dramatically different results for the one in need.

Finally, let me just say that the very fact that you are reading about anger and have a will to learn how to manage your destructive emotions or help others do the same is big act of compassion. It is an act of compassion towards yourself and all others around you.  If you truly learn this, your life will never be the same.

UPDATE: I discovered this video months after this article was posted. I feel this animated short demonstrates the diference between Empathy and Sympathy very well.

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{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Anton March 13, 2012, 8:30 pm

    Fantastic web site. I really appreciate your work here. I offer some feedback regarding the modern definitions of sympathy and empathy: I earnestly believe your lucid illustration of each in, “Compassion vs Empathy Vs Sympathy vs Plain Horny” is inadvertently reversed.

    Reference: Wiki on “Sympathy”:
    Sympathy is a heightened awareness of another person’s state of mind and his or her circumstances stemming from recognition of his or her feelings [9]

    Empathy… is “an emotional response that stems from another’s emotional state or condition and that is congruent with the other’s emotional state or situation”

    Keep up the great work; I look forward to your book.

    • Anger Mentor March 14, 2012, 3:35 pm

      Hello Anton, thank you for your kind words and your insights. Looks like you are correct, if one looks up Wiki and then Webster the definitions sounds somewhat different. In fact Wiki even goes as far as comparing Sympathy to “Empathic concern” and then in same sentence points out that it is same as compassion – very confusing, isn’t it? :-) I did correct my source to Webster for Sympathy (thanks to you). Now empathy seems to be a new kid on the block – a rather recent addition to English vocabulary. I’d say we would have been fine without it – IMHO, the term doesn’t add much clarity to the situation. Whatever the difference between them two; compassion is king anyways, this is the one that matters most. :-)

      • calvin March 16, 2012, 1:51 am

        For clarification:

        Empathy is understanding deeply what another is experiencing (you get it).
        Sympathy is empathy plus experiencing the subject’s distress (you feel it).
        Compassion is sympathy or empathy plus wanting to help.

        Cheers.

        • Anger Mentor March 16, 2012, 2:19 am

          Thank you for your contribution Calvin. Simple is good. :-)

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