- Dora Nudelman
Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion
I often get asked the question, "What is the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion?" These seem like synonymous terms but, in reality, they are quite different ways of reacting to the world.
Sympathy has a lot to do with feeling sorry for someone, whether it is intended or not. When we feel sympathy for someone in a way we are placing them in the role of a victim. That is, by feeling sorry for them we are feeding into the concept that something happened to them, which on the surface may very well appear to be true, but in reality it ignores their power to create their own life's circumstances. I know this definition sounds harsh, but if we are really being perceptive to it, we will notice that when we feel sympathy for someone it goes hand-in-hand with pity. And this is dis-empowering.
Empathy, on the other hand, has more to do with an internalization of someone else's emotions. It is a way that we mentally and emotionally, and sometimes physically, take on the feelings of another person. It is like we are stepping into the shoes of another for a moment to feel what they are feeling so that we can empathize. For many, this creates a short-lived reaction that eventually dissipates. For others who are empathic, however, it can take a lot more effort to get over. So while empathy on its own is not a bad thing, it does need to be controlled more by those who are more empathic by nature so that it does not take over their lives in a negative way.
Compassion, on the other hand, is when we care but we do not internalize someone else's situation or feelings. This is when we are level-headed and in a powerful position to be of service because we are not incapacitated by feelings that are not our own. When we are compassionate we are able to stay grounded and centered in what is ours versus what belongs to someone else. This way we can be more helpful and stable for those who need our assistance. Compassion does not mean being robotic or unemotional. Rather, it means being more of an objective observer so that you can be the rock for those who need it.
We often don't notice the difference between these three ways of seeing the world but it is important that we do, especially for those of us who are extra sensitive to the energies around us. I never want to disempower anyone so I do my best to never feel sorry for people, even if their circumstances seem to warrant that response. And it's not because I lack compassion but rather because I want them to feel empowered in their lives rather than victimized.
And as an empath my natural instincts are to embody the feelings of other people (empathy) but in order to be empowered myself I have had to transform that response as well. Compassion, then, has become my go-to reaction because to me it allows me to be of service, to care, but to also to protect my own energy field from unwanted feelings that are not my own.
We can only truly be of service when we are coming from a place of power. If we add ourselves to the problem (through too much empathy) or only focus on the problem (by feeling too much sympathy) we are not ultimately being helpful to anyone. Compassion, then, I believe, is the best way to go.