I write for several mental health and psychology journals and blogs. Every month, I field questions that may be relevant to several people and their interests. Recently, I was asked to differentiate between sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and their significance. While there is overlap, the empirical data and clinical experience indicate differences among these concepts.
In addition, I have been exploring the concept of Empath, which is somewhat different, and does not yet have sufficient research. As you know, I believe in the combination of clinical, empirical, cultural competence, and lived experience, so it’s an intriguing area for further study.
*Empathy means that you feel what a person is feeling.
*Sympathy means you can understand what the person is feeling.
*Compassion is the willingness to relieve the suffering of another. It is an active process of wanting to help others.
When you are viscerally feeling what another person feels, you are experiencing empathy. Thanks to your brain’s “mirror neurons,” a concept still under neural investigation, empathy may arise when you witness someone in pain. For example, if you saw someone in distress, you may feel awful. This has even been witnessed in infancy, such as babies and toddlers who may start crying if they see or hear another child in tears.
Several interesting developmental psychology studies in Finland and Denmark have shown that empathy can be taught from an early age, as an active skill and strategy, so ‘baby, you were born with it,￼’ is not necessarily the only scenario. Just think about the possibilities of teaching empathy as an active life strategy and the possibilities for what that would mean across the world.
For more info: Why We Should Teach Empathy
It can be tricky to differentiate sympathy and empathy. The main difference? When you are sympathetic, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand the content of what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s loved one has passed away, you may not be able to feel that person’s experience. However, you can understand that your friend is sad. This includes societal norms of grief and loss.
Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy to the level of activity. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do what you can to to alleviate the person’s suffering. It is the basis of volunteering, community service, mentoring, and helping others.
At its Latin roots, compassion means “to suffer with.” When you’re compassionate, you’re not running away from suffering, you’re not feeling overwhelmed by suffering, and you’re not pretending the suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering, actively.
Dr. Thupten Jinpa, was the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and author of the training known as Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT). Jinpa posits that compassion, trained in neural science, is a four-step process:
-Awareness of suffering
-Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering
-Wishing to see the relief of that suffering
-Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering through behavioral activity and reaching out.
For more info: Compassion Institute
I posit one additional concept, that does not yet have sufficient Cognitive/Neural research data. I call it the mind meld, or empath. It’s being with someone in the mindful moment or experience, and has been anecdotally described in indigenous cultures and spiritual practice. Think of Diana, from Star Trek; or the conduit described by the Iroquois, and dogs who stare into your eyes, which they do not do with any other species, except their beloved humans.
The Neuropsychology of Dog Love
When I began my neuroscience studies, the epitome of writing and research was represented by neurologist, Dr. Eric Kandel. Many chapters in his landmark textbook ended with: this is all we know, and how much we still need to learn about brain functioning. Still true.I enjoy your neuropsychology questions and comments. And I love that people are interested in the brain/mind connection. They are forever spouses.