What are the differences? They all seem like the same thing…so, in case you are wondering, let’s dive in and take a closer look at each one. Let’s start with Pity.

Pity looks at someone, who is less fortunate, with these internal words, “You poor thing. I am sorry for you, but I’m really glad that this didn’t happen to me. I have nothing to offer you to help you in your circumstances. I hope you find someone to help. This really is sad, unfortunate, and tragic that you have to undergo this suffering. I am sorry for you, but I cannot do anything to help!”

Pity is a feeling of discomfort when one sees another in distress; the person filled with pity often appears paternalistic or condescending. Implicit with the feeling of pity is that the pitiable person does not deserve their plight, and they were unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn what has happened to them. There is also the perspective of karma, meaning that they must have done something to deserve this awful fate.

Sympathy is about caring, concern, and well-wishing. Sympathy is a feeling of care and concern for another, who is a close friend or relative. The sympathetic person wishes to see the other in better circumstances, better off or happier, or have their suffering ameliorated in some way. Sympathy does not involve any shared perspective or emotions. While the facial expressions of a sympathetic person convey caring and concern, they do not transmit any shared distress. For example, the sympathetic person’s inner dialog might sound like: “I know how it feels to have a broken heart. It feels like the end of the world, but please know that this too will pass.”

Empathy is a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another. It involves seeing another’s situation from their perspective, and, recreating their emotions. The internal dialog is: “I feel your pain, how can I help?”

Compassion or “suffering alongside another” is more deeply engaged than empathy, and has an active desire to alleviate the pain and suffering of the other person.

With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions, I also want to elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.

Compassion, builds upon empathy, and is one of the main motivators of altruism. The internal dialog sounds like, “Your experience sounds like it is about overcoming adversity, which, as humans, is universal. As a fellow human, I can feel your pain, and I am here to help. Please help me help you, so that, at least some of your suffering is released!”

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