There’s Something About Empathy

July 16, 2021

How do sympathy, compassion and empathy compare? Low Entropy Volunteer Writer Christie Gan gives us a primer on these essential interpersonal concepts.


Sympathy is the ability to feel pity and sorrow for someone else’s troubles. Meanwhile, compassion is the ability to feel sympathy for someone to a point where you want to help them. On the other hand, empathy is the ability to understand and experience someone else’s feelings.


So logically, if you feel sympathy for someone, and then you feel compassionate enough to help them, shouldn’t that solve their problems? Why would you even need to show empathy to them?


Well, sympathy shows an awareness of someone else’s troubles, while compassion shows a willingness to help that person with their troubles on top of an awareness of them. However, empathy isn’t about feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is about sharing and validating someone’s feelings and thinking of solutions based on a deep understanding of what it’s like to be in their shoes. This, in turn, provides them a deeper understanding of themselves and motivates them to take their own action in relieving their misfortunes. 


Based on my own experiences, I’ve ranked sympathy, compassion and empathy on a scale of helpfulness from level 1 (least helpful) to level 3 (most helpful):


Level 1: Sympathy


A few months ago, I was set to fly back to Vancouver to finish my final semester of university. I’d shown my negative COVID-19 test results to an attendant at check-in and boarded a flight to Tokyo. I would have been able to board my transfer flight to Vancouver, if not for them deeming my COVID-19 test invalid from being done a few hours earlier than Tokyo’s new cut-off time. I had no choice but to take a flight back home, where I would have to be quarantined in a hotel for 21 days. 


While I was in despair about putting up with long-distance learning for even longer than I already had and paying out of pocket for the hotel, a flight attendant in Tokyo asked me what I intended to fly to Vancouver for. I’d told her it was to study, and with a pitiful expression, she replied: 


“I’m sorry.”


I’m sure she hadn’t meant to make me feel worse, but those two words amplified the severity of the situation and made me shift all the blame onto myself. Thinking back to this always reminds me that telling someone I’m sorry they’re going through something won’t necessarily make them feel better—something I’m glad I’ve gained from the experience.


Level 2: Compassion


Given that I was a student traveling on my own with a ludicrous amount of luggage, the airline in my hometown felt so sorry for me that they decided to help me. To my immense relief, they booked me a new COVID-19 test and put me on their next available direct flight to Vancouver for free. I definitely hadn’t felt completely heard and understood—especially not when I was even mistaken to not be a resident of my own hometown! Nonetheless, I was certainly grateful that they got me to where I needed to be. At the very least, they showed that they did genuinely care that I was affected by taking exceptional action to help me.


Level 3: Empathy


Last year, a dear friend of mine was seriously struggling with her studies. She was completely burned out in her medicine program. Even picking up a pen proved difficult to her, and she’d lost her appetite completely. Her motivation and mental health were at rock bottom.


I’d listened to her telling me, “I just feel so lost. I don’t know why doing even the simplest things is so hard these days. Am I making my problems up in my head? What if I’m just being lazy?” In return, I’d said, “It makes sense that things are difficult right now. You’re taking a very stressful program; you’ve told me about having to memorize six entire textbooks’ worth of content for an exam for a single subject, which is no easy feat. I know you’ve been trying your best and working super hard, and it’s normal to need a break. You’re only human.” 


I’d suggested a counselling session, she’d booked an appointment, and I’d offered to accompany her. During the session, I patted her shoulder as she cried, took notes, then reorganized these notes on a digital document that I sent to her afterwards. Afterwards, she sent me a text:


Thank you so much. I feel a lot better now. I’m going to sit down and figure out what’s best for me, like you and the counsellor said to.


It made my day to know that I not only made her feel better, but proposed a solution that inspired her to take action for herself. Ultimately, empathy goes a long way because it doesn’t only make whoever you show it to feel heard—it empowers them too. Yes, it’s useful to sympathize and even better to show compassion, but empathy involves taking compassion to the next level. Mastering empathy and maintaining my ability to be good at it are goals that I never let out of mind or sight, because I believe empathy is the key to reducing entropy—a state of disorder, as we say—in society. 

Empathy is certainly helpful, but it can be emotionally taxing as well. How do you balance sympathy, compassion and empathy? Let us know in the comments below, or start up a discussion on our community site!

One thought on “There’s Something About Empathy

  1. Great article. I feel like empathy will be true only if you have had a way to truly identify yourself with what the other is going through. Sometimes it’s easier, because the subject is more common, but some people go through particular struggles, which can be hard for most people to really experience the other’s feelings.
    If we can, at least try to understand and show compassion, that can be helpful.

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