The Silver Lining of Compassionate Empathy


When we hear the word, compassion, we tend to conceptualize it to mean feeling sorry for someone, relating to the pain of the other, feeling bad about what the other is going through. Some platforms define compassion as sympathetic pity. It is a place that we go in our hearts to first feel and then act when we see the suffering of others. Charitable organizations recognize our sense of compassion to lead us to relate to the pain of the other and to take action, by contributing, volunteering, becoming an activist, a voice for the voiceless.

And then there is empathy. Are they the same? What about sympathy? Is it the same? I would like to share with you how I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. I have always been a sympathetic person. I have always been a compassionate person. I thought that I was always an empathetic person until I personally learned the difference. As a sympathetic person, when someone lost a loved one, I truly felt bad FOR them. I even thought that I felt their pain. I said all the right words, gave the prerequisite Southern hug (there is truly nothing like a true Southern hug) and moved on with my life.

Then came my own heartwrenching loss. My wonderful mother succumbed to the grips of pancreatic cancer.  Seven months, twenty-nine days, and 4 hours later, my awesome best friend succumbed to the same damn illness.  In both cases, I received the warm, genuinely heartfelt Southern hug.  I heard the gently spoken sympathetic words, “I am so sorry for your loss”; “Is there anything you need?”; “There is food in the kitchen.” and the worst (for me)…”Time heals all wounds”.

Empathy: truly feeling someone’s pain; experiencing the pain with them; an emotional connection to someone’s else feeling or experience; being there with the other, not just for the other. Yes, during this time, I learned the difference between sympathy and empathy. It then became my mission to learn more. Where is the place for sympathy and when is the time of empathy? I can say that the empathy that I now experience cannot be defined by a Google search. It goes so deep within my heart and touches those pain points that are there though sometimes dormant. It comes up at odd times. Maybe while watching a TV program or even a commercial. Mother’s Day, birthdays, travel days, holidays, you name it days….it just pops up.

As a healthcare professional, I experienced sympathy and compassion. As a coach, I experience the same. The difference is when empathy comes in. Compassionate empathy, not emotional empathy. This is the time to feel with the other, respect that feeling, honor that feeling, and then move forward. This is the only way, for me, that I can serve my client. Feel with them and move forward so that they can move forward. I have learned over time how to feel with, feel for and serve.

That, for me, is the silver lining of compassionate empathy.