Difference between Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion

Empathy refers to the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand others’ feelings, desires, ideas and actions. The ability to empathize is directly dependent on your ability to feel your own feelings and identify them.

Sympathy refers to acknowledging another person’s emotional hardships. You feel sorry for the person and pity them. However, you do not specifically understand how they are feeling.

Compassion gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another’s suffering. It involves a sense of empathy. It does not end with pity. It invokes sensibilities to understand and even feel the pain of others and motivates one to be truly helpful in overcoming this pain. It basically implies to suffer together.

There is a thin line of difference among all the three. Sympathy focuses on awareness, empathy focuses on experience and Compassion focuses on action.

We can take the example of a ten year old girl working as a maid. Being sympathetic would simply mean feeling sad for her. Empathising would indicate connecting yourself with her by putting yourself or some younger member of the family in her place.

Compassion would arise when you make arrangements for unleashing her from the clutches of working as a maid and getting her due share of childhood by going to a school, playing, etc. This would involve steps like approaching a NGO.

For a civil servant, it is necessary to have a proper mix of all the three qualities and putting them into action as per the demand of the situation. Having a mix of these qualities would indicate that the civil servant is human and sensitive.