Sympathy, Empathy, & Compassion During a Time of Upheaval

During this time of incredible suffering and sacrifice on multiple fronts in this country and world-wide, how do we come together across the divisions, understand each other, and work together?  How do we bridge the gap between perspectives and heal the pain that drives many of our reactions to what faces us today?  When I think of coming together, the words sympathy, empathy, and compassion come to mind. I’d like to share my experience with each of these approaches so we can focus on the most productive approach to coming together around difference during this difficult time.


When it comes to how we relate to others’ needs some of us were raised primarily to be sympathetic. To me sympathy is that sense of “poor me” or “poor you.” It can have a sense of condescension in it. In my own life experience I found this to be true in my being raised to believe that my community’s version of religion was the one true way. Those outside of the belief system were pitied for their unbelieving. Pity, in my experience, can lead to saviorism and supremacy, a sort of dominating position that can maintain the status quo, potentially maintaining power differentials and privilege rather than alleviating suffering. I think sympathy for marginalized groups will not be enough to make meaningful impact in bridging  the separations we find in our society.


Some of us were taught to ask ourselves, “How would you feel if Susan splashed you in the pool before you were ready to get wet?” right after we splashed her upon her entering the pool. Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in the place of another and imagine what their experience is like or feel what they might be feeling. Empathy, in that sense, is emotional understanding. While more evolved, in my opinion, than sympathy, it has a major downside and is also not enough. Empathy can be exhausting.  You may be familiar with the common mental health term, “compassion fatigue.” Through my lived experience of this notion and the research on this, however, I’ve come to identify that feeling as “empathy fatigue.” I’ve worked in helping professions my entire adult life, from non-profit sports coach, to chaplain in the marketplace and hospital, to the scheduling position here at Deep Eddy. I’ve frequently experienced emotional burnout. Each time I’ve experienced burnout it seems to stem from excessive empathy. 


It seems far too few of us grew up supported in accessing the compassion which exists naturally within ourselves. I see each human as being  innately wired with a core self which doesn’t just have compassion, but is compassion. Many spiritual traditions teach that this kind of innate compassion is who we really are. They use phrases such as Buddha nature or soul to describe that place in us which is compassion and love. Through our experiences being violated, shamed, and hurt by the world around us we often leave our own true nature and find less fulfilling yet less risky ways of being to survive the chaos of existence. Through some kind of awakening experience later in life, a trauma, a truly loving partner, a mentor or a therapist we find ourselves feeling the ache for our true nature once again and we begin a self-healing journey back home to ourselves. In my experience of this self-healing journey, I find that in my glimpses feeling at home in myself I experience not sympathy, or empathy alone, but what I can only describe in words as compassion or open-heartedness. To me compassion has two experiential parts to it: One, the empathy of imagining reality as the other experiences it. Two, it takes what trauma therapist and author Dan Allender calls “response-ableness” which in my opinion is a complicated yet intuitive algorithm of self-compassion, boundaries, humility, and service. 

A therapist of mine once described the difference between empathy and compassion to me by describing two boats. She said empathy is pulling up in your own boat next to someone whose boat has begun to sink and jumping in with them. The ending of which often ends in the two of you drowning together. Compassion on the other hand, she says, is like pulling up your boat next to someone drowning in their own boat and saying, “I can’t jump in to save you or we’ll both die, but tell me what I can do from here to help you.” We often sympathize that in the distance we see someone’s boat going under. Sometimes we empathetically over-function by jumping in the boat and sinking ourselves and the other. When we’re doing the self-healing work to live most authentically from our true nature we begin to experience compassion, the combination of understanding and response-ableness to the suffering of those around us.

The life long work of a person with white privilege cannot be done from sympathy, you’ll only further perpetuate separateness. Empathy alone will burn you out and not create lasting systemic change. Living out your true nature of compassion will require you to do deeply uncomfortable self-healing work but will best position you for the life long work of anti-racism and contributing to a more just society.

If you’re looking for a place to do more self-healing work, I’d love to help connect you with a therapist here at Deep Eddy. You can reach me at [email protected] or 512-956-6463 to get started.

By: Sean Williams, Deep Eddy Psychotherapy Scheduling Team


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