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Are You Empathetic?

Charlottesville, Virginia

March 31, 2020

Crazy times. Fortunately I am not aware that I know anyone who has Covid-19. Perhaps it is just a matter of time. I hope not.

As I thought about how I might be able to be helpful during the next several months, I stumbled on which of three words I would use to describe myself - empathetic, sympathetic or compassionate. I realized I could not distinguish among those words so I went to Google and here is what I found (you may already know this; as my son says, "Dad, you have the smartest friends.")


Empathy, sympathy, and compassion are three words that many of us tend to use interchangeably. While these words are "cousins," they are not synonymous with one another.

  • 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.


When we are viscerally feeling what another person feels, we are experiencing empathy. Thanks to our brain’s “mirror neurons,” empathy may arise automatically when we witness someone in pain. But what about when we don’t automatically feel the sensation of another? That’s where our imagination kicks in. “Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.” That’s the other route to empathy. For example, perhaps you saw me slam my fingers in a car door, but you didn’t automatically feel that pain. Instead, you can imagine what it might be like to have your fingers slammed in a door, and that may allow you to feel my pain.

(Although there is a school of thought that doing so is not really helpful unless you have truly had a similar experience.)

Empathy isn’t reserved for unpleasant feelings only. You can feel empathy when you witness joy, too. For example, when someone walks in the room smiling and that makes you smile.


The main difference between sympathy and empathy? When you are sympathetic, you are not experiencing another’s feeling. Instead, you are able to understand what the person is feeling. For example, if someone’s father has passed away, you may not be able to physically feel that person’s pain. However, you can understand that your friend is sad.

This explains why you send sympathy cards when your friend’s loved one has passed away. You are not feeling that person’s pain, but you want your friend to know you are aware of her suffering.


Compassion kicks both empathy and sympathy up a notch. 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 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.

The Dalai Lama 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.

Mindfulness, or nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment is critical to truly be compassionate. Why mindfulness? Because we aren’t able to notice that someone is suffering unless we are fully present.

An Example of Compassion

A person listened without trying to fix your problem, and this person wasn’t relating it back to his own life. He listened without judgment. Simply listening with your full presence can be one of the most compassionate acts you can offer. This may be harder for us men as we tend to want to solve problems. We need to leave that tool in the closet in order to be compassionate.

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. This is a common problem for caregivers and health care providers, and it’s been labeled “empathy fatigue.”

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.

As the Dalai Lama 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.”

So compassion seems like the best of the three. And neuroscience explains why.

Empathic people feel the pain of others acutely. Is it possible to be too empathic? Could feeling too deeply for someone else’s pain or sorrow actually hurt you? Indeed, too much empathy can be debilitating. When we become too distressed about the suffering of others, we don’t have the cognitive and emotional resources available to do much to help them. Having compassion, a cognitive understanding of how they’re feeling, is better for our own well-being and the well-being of those in need.

The idea that there can actually be too much empathy can be traced back to early Buddhist teachings. Instead of focusing on empathy to the point of draining ourselves emotionally, Buddhism teaches the practice of compassion, called karuna. This is the idea of sharing in suffering, having concern for another, but essentially “feeling for and not feeling with the other.”

Neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki conducted studies comparing empathy and compassion. Two separate experiment groups were trained to practice either empathy or compassion. Their research revealed fascinating differences in the brain’s reaction to the two types of training.

First, the empathy training activated motion in the insula (linked to emotion and self-awareness) and motion in the anterior cingulate cortex (linked to emotion and consciousness), as well as pain registering. The compassion group, however, stimulated activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (connected to learning and reward in decision-making) as well as activity in the ventral striatum (also connected to the reward system).

Second, the two types of training led to very different emotions and attitudes toward action. The empathy-trained group actually found empathy uncomfortable and troublesome. The compassion group, on the other hand, created positivity in the minds of the group members. The compassion group ended up feeling kinder and more eager to help others than those in the empathy group.

Tips to Cultivate Compassion

- Limit exposure to negativity. We have a perceptual bias to pay more attention to negative, potentially threatening information. It’s good to be aware of possible threats and problems. But without some perspective-taking, it can lead us to believe that the negative outweighs the positive. Be discerning about the amount of time and attention you give to distressing information on a regular basis.

- Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation. By deliberately imagining yourself, your loved ones, people you feel neutral about, and even people you dislike, experiencing happiness and freedom – you make the world a kinder place. Research in loving-kindness meditation shows it builds emotional resilience and meaningful social connections which can help you respond to challenges with compassion.

Which one am I?

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