7. Places We Go With Others

Compassion, Pity, Empathy, Sympathy, Comparative Suffering, Boundaries

Compassion, Pity, Empathy, and Sympathy

Compassion is the daily practice of recognizing and accepting our shared humanity so that we treat ourselves and others with loving-kindness, and we take action in the face of suffering. Compassion includes action. It’s not just feeling, it’s doing.

The most effective approach to meaningful connection combines compassion with a specific type of empathy called cognitive empathy

‘Near enemy’ is a useful Buddhist concept referring to a state of mind that appears similar to the desired state —hence it is ‘near’—but actually undermines it, which is why it’s an enemy.” “Far enemies” are the opposite of emotions or experiences—the far enemy of compassion might be cruelty. What’s interesting is that near enemies are often greater threats than far enemies because they’re more difficult to recognize.

The near enemy of compassion is pity.

Pity sets up a separation between ourselves and others, a sense of distance and remoteness from the suffering of others that is affirming and gratifying to the self.

Compassion recognizes the suffering of another as a reflection of our own pain: “I understand this; I suffer in the same way.” It is empathetic, a mutual connection with the pain and sorrow of life. Compassion is shared suffering.

Pity involves four elements:

Another enemy of compassion is despair. Compassion does not mean immersing ourselves in the suffering of others to the point of anguish. Compassion is the tender readiness of the heart to respond to one’s own or another’s pain without despair, resentment, or aversion. It is the wish to dissipate suffering.

Empathy is an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.

There are at least two elements to empathy: cognitive empathy and affective empathy.

Meaningful connection requires a combination of compassion and cognitive empathy.

Theresa Wiseman’s Attributes of Empathy:

  1. Perspective taking: What does that concept mean for you? What is that experience like for you?
  2. Staying out of judgment: Just listen, don’t put value on it.
  3. Recognizing emotion: How can I touch within myself something that helps me identify and connect with what the other person might be feeling? Check in and clarify what you are hearing. Ask questions.
  4. Communicating our understanding about the emotion: Sometimes this is elaborate and detailed, and sometimes this is simply, “Shit. That’s hard. I get that.”
  5. Practicing mindfulness: This is not pushing away emotion because it’s uncomfortable, but feeling it and moving through it.

Sympathy and pity are first cousins. Sympathy is the near enemy of empathy.

Empathy Misses

  1. Sympathy versus Empathy I feel sorry for you The person who responds with sympathy (“I feel so sorry for you”) rather than empathy (“I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there”). The subtext of this response is distance: These things don’t happen to me or people like me.
  2. Judgement You should feel shame The person who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. The friend gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is an awkward silence. Then you have to make this person feel better by convincing them that you’re not a terrible person.
  3. Disappointment You've let me down The person who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. This person can’t help you because they are too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let this person down.
  4. Discharging Discomfort with Blame This feels terrible. Who can we blame? You? Because shame is visceral and contagious, we can feel it for other people. This person immediately needs to discharge the discomfort and vulnerability of the situation by blaming and scolding. “What were you thinking?” Or they may look for someone else to take the fall: “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his butt.”
  5. Minimize / Avoid Let's make this go away We minimize and avoid when we want hard feelings to go away. Out of their own discomfort, this person refuses to acknowledge that you’re in pain and/or that you’re hurting: “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
  6. Comparing / Competing If you think that's bad! This person confuses connecting with you over shared experiences with the opportunity to one-up you. “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”
  7. Speaking Truth to Power Don't upset people or make them feel uncomfortable You hold someone accountable for language, comments, or behavior that marginalizes or dehumanizes others, and it causes discomfort or conflict. When this person observes this or hears your story of what happened, they respond with, “I can’t believe you said that to your boss!” or “I can’t believe you went there!” or “You can’t talk about that stuff with people” versus an empathic response of “That must have been hard—you were really brave” or “It’s hard to stand up for what you believe in—thank you.”
  8. **Advice Giving / Problem Solving***I can fix this and I can fix you* Sometimes when we see pain our first instinct is to fix it. This is especially true for those of us whom people seek out to help with problem-solving. In these instances, rather than listen and be with people in their emotion, we start fixing.

Comparative Suffering

Fear and scarcity trigger comparison. Pain and hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked. Sharing how we feel —even complaining—is okay as long as we piss and moan with a little perspective. Hurt is hurt, and every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy and compassion, the healing that results affects all of us.


Boundaries are a prerequisite for compassion and empathy. We can’t connect with someone unless we’re clear about where we end and they begin. If there’s no autonomy between people, then there’s no compassion or empathy, just enmeshment.

What’s OK and What’s Not OK Too often we forget about the “what is okay” part, and that leads to unnecessary disconnection.

When people set a boundary with us, we can feel that they’re denying us our right to our thinking and feeling. When we explain up front what’s okay, we move the focus to where it belongs: This expression of your feelings or thinking is the problem.