The Big Three

When we talk about developing strong social connections, three words often come up – sympathy, empathy and compassion. Many of us use them interchangeably, and whilst they might be sort of related – second cousins maybe – they’re not synonymous with one another.

What they do have in common though, is that they are all a reaction to how someone else is feeling.

Let’s start with sympathy. If it was on a rating scale of degree of personal engagement with the reaction, sympathy would be at the lowest point of the three. Sympathy means you can understand what the other person is feeling and you experience care and concern for that person. What separates this emotion from the others though, is that while our facial expressions might convey caring and concern, we’re not sharing the other person’s distress. For example, we can probably sympathise with ladybugs or snails, but actually sharing their perspectives or emotions could be quite difficult.

If we take it up a notch on the scale of personal engagement, we get to empathy. Empathy can be defined as our ability to recognise and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from their perspective, and, second, sharing their emotions.

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. If we are to share in the perspective someone else, we need to do a lot more than merely put ourselves into their position. Instead, we need to imagine ourselves as them – with their personality, experiences, background - , and more than that, imagine ourselves as them in the particular situation in which they find themselves. To empathise we need to know this person AND we need to get creative with our imagination.

We may think of it as the business of escaping our normal egoism, of leaving the self – and putting ourselves imaginatively into someone else’s experience. But the trick for empathy might be slightly different. It isn’t so much about transcending ourselves as it is about practicing an unusual kind of introspection, which takes us into less familiar parts of our own minds.

Imagine if we were, for example, asked to empathise with someone who seems so far from our own personality, realm and experiences. Maybe an aristocratic, contemptuous, well-to-do gentleman from the late 1800s. Instead of giving up, we can try and draw on certain less obvious parts of our own experience. Insofar as each of us contains, in latent form, all of human life, there will inevitably be a small, currently recessive part of us that is in synch with the mindset we associate with a eighteenth century aristocrat.

We might remember one day being on a busy bus, totally annoyed by a group of obnoxious, perhaps drunk fellow passengers. The mood might not have lasted, but we might recognise for an instant in ourselves a potential to look rather sternly at others and suspect that in some ways, we might be rather better than other people. In trying to empathise with a lord, we’re seeking out and detecting an overlap of experience. We’re learning to recognise in a very different person an echo of our own intimate history.

It’s possible that the person who lacks empathy isn’t so much selfish as generally not fully alive to the darker, less familiar, more weird recesses of themselves: the parts that are a range of things that they aren’t quite most of the time. They might not be narrowly refusing the challenge of entering into the mind of another person, they may just be less aware of their own experiences or wary of treading with sufficient imagination into their own consciousness. Behind the reserve of the unempathetic is a fear of running into troubling emotions. The opposite of empathy isn’t just thinking of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself in limited ways.

Compassion kicks empathy and sympathy up a notch. When we are compassionate, we can feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or we can recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then we take some action. We do something to try and alleviate the person’s suffering.

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.

Dr Thupten Jinpa, Ph.D., is the Dalai Lama’s principal English translator and a trainer in compassion cultivation. Jinpa posits that compassion is a four-step process:

  1. Awareness of suffering.
  2. Sympathetic concern related to being emotionally moved by suffering.
  3. Wish to see the relief of that suffering.
  4. Responsiveness or readiness to help relieve that suffering.

A compassionate response is something we do, not just something we think about. But at its core, compassion is also the acceptance of suffering. That doesn’t mean full detatchment, in which we stop giving a damn about anything (“hey, shit happens, move on”). Neither is it an intellectual acceptance of suffering that has us looking at someone’s personal tragedy through the haze of statistics (“well, you know, one in five these days). Rather, compassion is the acceptance that awful stuff can happen to any of us. But there are lots of things we can do to make that suffering way less shit.

For example, how good is it when someone really listens to us when we share a problem? The person listened without trying to fix our problem, and this person wasn’t relating it back to their own life. They listened without judgment. Simply listening with full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts we can offer.

An important distinction between empathy and compassion is how they can affect your overall well-being. If you are frequently feeling the pain of another, you may experience overwhelm or burnout.

Compassion, however, is a renewable resource. When you are able to feel empathy but then extend a hand to alleviate someone’s pain, you are less likely to burn out. Research indicates that compassion and empathy use different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress.

Don’t take it from me, though. The Dalai Lama famously said in the book The Art of Happiness, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”

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