Sympathy, empathy, compassion

Sympathy: “I’m sorry to hear that your wife has cancer.”

Empathy: “I’m sorry to hear that you wife has cancer. I couldn’t sleep when I heard and haven’t slept properly since.”

Compassion: “I’m sorry to hear that your wife has cancer. I know how chemotherapy can knock you out. I’ll come at 8 tomorrow and take the children to school: I can then easily do it every day.”


  1. Sympathy can be shallow to the point of meaningless.
  2. Empathy can easily be confused with self-dramatisation, making yourself more important than the person with the problem.
  3. Compassion must be evidence-based and sensitive. Will you taking the children to school really be helpful? Might the wife be the sort of person who would rather suffer than build up what she sees as a social debt?
  4. Perhaps it’s easier for professionals than friends to be compassionate because they have the evidence on what is most needed.
  5. Empathy without compassion can be disgusting.
  6. You can be compassionate without being empathetic. Indeed, empathy might get in the way.

One thought on “Sympathy, empathy, compassion

  1. I think empathy can involve having time to listen, which can make a difference.
    However, I like the moral idea that if you think someone is doing it much tougher than you, then if you don’t act in some way that makes it a little easier for them then it is not really helping.
    Health professionals now have so many boundaries, the ones that are compassionate look eccentric and unprofessional.


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