Monday, May 4, 2009

Pity, Sympathy, Compassion & Empathy

What feelings rise up within you as you see someone in need and/or in pain? The answers are what we are going to compare and contrast here. But first, some definitions to further our understanding of this topic.

Definitions

Pity evokes a tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow or empathy for a people, person, or animal in misery, pain, or distress. In regard to humans, a protective or quasi-paternal feeling of pity may be felt towards marginalized or impoverished people such as homeless families; orphans; people with disabilities or terminal illnesses, and victims of rape and torture. Some other meanings for Pity are: 1 a: sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy b: capacity to feel pity 2: something to be regretted

Sympathy is a social affinity in which one person stands with another person, closely understanding his or her feelings. The essence of sympathy is that one has a strong concern for the other person. Sympathy exists when the feelings or emotions of one person are deeply understood and appreciated by another person.

Some other definitions of Sympathy are:
1 a:
an affinity, association, or relationship between persons or things wherein whatever affects one similarly affects the other b: mutual or parallel susceptibility or a condition brought about by it c: unity or harmony in action or effect
2 a:
inclination to think or feel alike : emotional or intellectual accord b: feeling of loyalty : tendency to favor or support
3 a: the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b: the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity

Compassion: a profound human emotion prompted by the pain of others. More vigorous than empathy, the feeling commonly gives rise to an active desire to alleviate another's suffering. It is often, though not inevitably, the key component in what manifests in the social context as altruism.Another definition for Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it.

Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another's emotions and feelings. It is often characterized as the ability to "put oneself into another's shoes," or in some way experience what the other person is feeling.

Some other definitions of Empathy are:
1. the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.
2. the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself


Compare & Contrast

Here is where we will begin comparing and contrasting the following ideas in more depth: Pity, Sympathy, Compassion, & Empathy. What we will be looking at is how each of these ideas often times seem to overlap in similarities. And how mistakes can be made through the assumption of their interchangeability with one another. We will also contrast each, showing how each particular term is unique unto itself, even while it holds certain similarities toward the other concepts.

The Similarities

The definition for Pity is evokes a tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow or empathy for a people, person, or animal in misery, pain, or distress. The definition of Sympathy is a social affinity in which one person stands with another person, closely understanding his or her feelings. The definition of Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. And the definition for Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another's emotions and feelings.

If you look at each of the above definitions with a keen eye, you will note how each of these things can interconnect, and even at times, seem interchangeable. They all have to do with emotions which are born out of other peoples suffering, sorrows, and tragedies. (Mind that this discussion does not take into account the ideas of self pity, self sympathy, self compassion and self empathy). So each of these are different levels of reaction toward the plight of another, dependent upon ones own personal experiences, beliefs, emotions, prejudices and sensitivities.

Pity, for example, is a feeling evoked through the misery of others. This does not mean that the pitier feels sympathy, compassion, or empathy for the one being pitied. This is because it is a superficial and condescending type of emotion that does not necessarily prompt one to act for the benefit of the one being pitied. But still, as with all of the other types, emotions are evoked through the viewing of another's suffering.

So one large similarity would be, based upon what we now know about pity, is that each of these concepts evokes emotion toward someone else's issues, whatever they may be. And that all of these ideas are reactionary, before they are filtered and interpreted into the singular response the brain deems appropriate for the situation. So at their most basic level, all of these hold equal potential to be used toward a given situation, before the information interacts with one's own personal prejudices and opinions.

The Contrasts

For the contrasts, we will need to take each idea and compare it the others individually, before we can make a more universal contrast of all of them together. So lets look at the definitions one more time, before we move on to the individual contrasts of each idea.

The definition for Pity is evokes a tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow or empathy for a people, person, or animal in misery, pain, or distress. The definition of Sympathy is a social affinity in which one person stands with another person, closely understanding his or her feelings. The definition of Compassion is the sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it. And the definition for Empathy is the capability to share your feelings and understand another's emotions and feelings.

1. Pity Vs. Sympathy ~ Definitions of pity clearly focus on the concerns and sorrows over another person's situation. While definitions of sympathy emphasize the kinship in feeling that enables a person to share in the misfortune of another person. In other words, in contrast to pity, sympathy involves a clearer sense of similarity between the self and the other person. (Handbook Of Social Comparison, page 191, by: Jerry M. Suls, Ladd Wheeler)

2. Pity Vs. Compassion ~
“Pity” is an emotional response based on fear and misunderstanding. We “look down into a pit” and see someone in a condition very different from ourselves. “Compassion,” by contrast, is “coming alongside another human being”. The “passion” at the end of the word implies that, somehow, the heart has to be deeply engaged. From this perspective, we see someone eye to eye, even when that’s uncomfortable for us.

3. Pity Vs. Empathy ~ Pity is feeling that another is in trouble and in need of help as they cannot fix their problems themselves, often described as "feeling sorry" for someone. In contrast, Empathy is distinctive from Pity, because it is the literal sharing of emotions between two people. In the act of seeing through another's eyes, into their unique perspective, wherein one shares the emotions, experiences, and thought progressions of the other person, a connection is forged, unlike that of pitying another.

4. Sympathy Vs. Compassion ~
Although sympathy is a form of caring, it implies pity. We express concern and ask what we can do, yet are grateful their problems are not ours. This perpetuates the fear that we couldn’t bear the same situation, and keeps us wanting to avoid the truth of their experience. While it is natural to feel sympathy when someone is hurting, there is little sense of what to offer as meaningful support.

Compassion is much more than a feeling, compassion is a choice to view suffering is a universal experience. This means viewing illness, loss, and even death as human experiences that are bearable with support. This helps us remain calm and keep our hearts open, and we become able to sit with someone in great physical or emotional pain.

5. Sympathy Vs. Empathy ~ Sympathy is feeling what somebody else feels through you. When you are being sympathetic, you're not really helping much, because you're making the situation about you. In contrast, empathy is feeling what somebody else feels through them. You keep the focus on them, until you're certain they've expressed themselves fully.

6. Compassion Vs. Empathy ~ The word 'empathy' means "Understanding and entering into another's feelings". The word 'compassion' means "The humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something about it". Empathy is understanding; a deep emotional feeling of another person's feelings or situation. It is different in that you are able to put yourself in someone else's situation that has not happened to you, and have real emotional reaction and understanding. While compassion is a feeling: comfort, kindness, forgiveness, charity. It is also the willful desire to elevate another person's pain, stress, or anxiety.

The End Results

The end result becomes much easier to grasp now. Each piece is a part of a larger process, each of which could also be construed as steps which rise to a certain goal. In this, pity is the acknowledgment of the another individual's plight. Sympathy is is elevated pity, in that we offer our support and caring, all the while being thankful it is not our plight. Empathy is the ability to feel the emotions and sorrows of another person, as though it were your own. One might even call Empathy, personalized sympathy, because the hurts of another become your own. And finally, Compassion is the willingness to act in order to help alleviate that other person's pain.

Steps Of Caring
1. Pity
2. Sympathy
3. Empathy
4. Compassion

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