Understanding Sympathy, Empathy, Pity, & Compassion

Dr. Robert Ritzema

April 30, 2023

The stories that parents tell about us speak more than we imagine. My parents used to tell me of my interactions with an elementary school classmate (I’ll call him Kenneth) who acted strangely and was disliked by others. My mother commented one day that being rejected must be hard on him. She was surprised when I came home a few days later and told her that Kenneth was now my best friend.

I don’t remember how and why I made friends with him, or why the friendship didn’t last. I now wonder what motivated me to befriend him. Did my mother’s comments evoke in me an impulse to make his life better in some way? I apparently felt something, be it empathy, sympathy, pity, or compassion, that made me want to reach out.

Sympathy. Empathy. Pity. Compassion. What are they? How do they differ from each other? What is their value in relationships? Parents who understand these emotions and how they differ can recognize and foster the most beneficial caring responses in their children.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Pity

So what do these terms mean? Let’s start with the two that are closest in meaning: sympathy and empathy. These can be difficult to distinguish from each other; in fact, they are often used interchangeably. I’ve found the following distinction most useful. Empathy is entering into and experiencing the feelings of another. Emotionally speaking, it is “walking in someone’s shoes.” Sympathy shares with empathy care and concern for the other and desire for their well-being, but without necessarily entering into the other’s emotional world. It's more feeling sorry for, rather than feeling sorry with. Empathy, then, would be feeling with the other person, and sympathy would be feeling for them. The two complement each other well.

Sympathy is sometimes confused with pity. Pity is a superficial response to someone’s suffering, feeling sorry for a person in a way that belittles them. Sympathy sometimes includes elements of pity, but, at its best, it is a feeling of genuine care for someone else’s welfare. In contrast to the superficiality and condensation of pity, empathy and sympathy are both valuable responses to suffering.


Finally there’s compassion, a reaction to someone’s distress in which caring feelings produce impulses to act in a helpful manner. Compassion combines feelings with behaviors. 

Of the four other-directed responses related to caring, compassion is far and away the one found most in scripture. Thus the feelings Pharaoh’s daughter had towards baby Moses resulted in her acting to rescue him (Ex. 2:6), and the Samaritan’s compassion for the wounded traveler spurred him to provide assistance (Luke 10:33). God’s compassion for his wayward people prompted him to send them messengers (2 Chr. 36:15). Christ’s compassion led to feeding the hungry (Mk. 8:2) and healing the sick (Mt 14:4). 

Probably my reaction to Kenneth was compassionate, not just sympathetic or empathetic, since I was motivated to act on my feelings. Perhaps there is always some tendency towards compassion in empathy and sympathy, for feeling the weight of someone’s troubles naturally evokes a desire to reduce their load. Compassion goes beyond mere thoughts and feelings into making a concrete difference in the life of another.

The Basis for Compassion

Compassion is a particularly valuable response for parents to inculcate in their children. Empathy can be felt too intensely, and sympathy can sometimes shade into pity, but compassion doesn’t have such potential pitfalls. Ways to foster healthy versions of these emotions will be discussed in subsequent articles. For now, I’ll offer one further thought about compassion that might prove helpful. Christian social psychologist Angela Sabates (In her book Social Psychology in Christian Perspective: Exploring the Human Condition) suggests that compassion is not simply an outgrowth of empathy or sympathy but is instead based on the idea that others are worth helping. In other words, the compassionate person assists others because they realize that those who are struggling are persons of value. 

Following God's heart

We Christians have a compelling reason for thinking that everyone we meet has value--we realize that they are made by God and bear his image. This is a message that we should never tire of conveying to our children: “Everyone has worth because God made them that way. Your brother, sister, friend, classmate, and everyone else you meet is worthy of being helped because God made them and loves them.”

Notice when your children show signs of caring for others in their feelings, thoughts, or actions. Encourage such responses. Pay attention to whether the child seems to be displaying empathy, sympathy, pity, or compassion. Recognizing the differences between the various types of caring and monitoring these in your child and yourself are useful steps towards developing children who care for and help others.

About the author — Dr. Robert Ritzema

Bob Ritzema is a clinical psychologist, having received his doctorate from Kent State University. He has worked for over 25 years as a psychotherapist and more than 10 years as a college professor. He retired from Methodist University in 2012 to return to his hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan in order to assist his parents. He currently works part-time at Psychology Associates of Grand Rapids and worships at Monroe Community Church. He has two sons and three grandchildren.

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