Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.
Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not always. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.
Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.
- Apathy = I don’t care. You are unimportant to me.
- Sympathy = I see you and I am feel sorry about your plight. This can feel like one-up/one-down. The person I “feel sympathy for” may feel pitied — which doesn’t feel good. But this is a step up from apathy. I might donate money or express concern from sympathy.
- Empathy = I feel what you feel. This is a peer-to-peer experience. When you are sad, I feel the sadness in my body/mind/heart. This has a genuine caring texture to the person who is suffering. But you might feel like you are riding the emotional rollercoaster of emotions. You and I might feel unsafe and distance ourselves if feeling another’s pain becomes too much.
- Compassion = I feel what you feel and it doesn’t overwhelm my circuits. My wisdom circuits remain active and I modulate my emotional state. I see a larger picture. I act skillfully to relieve suffering where I can, or to sit with people who just need accompaniment in their pain (or their joy).
Empathy is a core emotional intelligence (EQ) skill — being one of the 18 skills in the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI 2.0) created by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. They define it as “sensing others’ feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns.” It is a crucial skill for developing many of the social skills listed in the ECI fourth quadrant, labeled “Relationship Management” (or “Social Skills”). If you have read my book, you know that I have modeled the SQ four quadrants and 21 skills as a “vertical step up” from the ECI four quadrants and 18 skills. SQ and EQ are tightly connected.
Empathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion takes it further. It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action. In metta or loving-kindness meditation practice, one can silently repeat phrases to others as a way of acknowledging them and our own interconnectedness. It’s easy and highly portable. When I’m on the train, I silently repeat phrases like, “May you be happy; may you be safe; may you be at ease; may you be free from suffering,” to the passengers, particularly those who look like they need it most. This plants the seeds of compassion, and we can find ourselves acting in compassionate ways that never would have occurred to us before. As it turns out, this ancient practice has some amazing scientific discoveries to give it cred.
Barbara Fredrickson led a study at the University of North Carolina that showed that with just seven weeks of metta practice, participants were found to have increased life satisfaction and reduced depressive symptoms. It’s also been proven to decrease your bias toward others, decrease migraines and emotional tension, and increase gray matter in our brains.