Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion: Do You Know the Difference?

Many “Lightworkers” believe they are contributing and helping others by offering sympathy or empathy to those in trouble or in pain. There is a vast difference between empathy, sympathy and compassion. I would like to suggest you choose compassion the next time someone you care for is not doing well. Here is why.


There is an important distinction between empathy and sympathy and compassion. When the beautiful bride reaches for a drink, trips and falls into the deep end of the swimming pool, she completely soaks her gown and ruins her hair. Empathy is when you match her emotion and jump into the pool, fully dressed, and try to save her. As you know, drowning people tend to struggle and drag the rescuer down with them. And as Empathizer, that’s exactly what happens – you get all wet and nearly drown. The bride continues to make a mess of herself in the water.

I’ve met many empathic healers and most of them offer their healing by taking on or feeling the pain of their client. Many empaths are personally invested in this martry-like healing method. Their identity and value is wrapped up in running another’s pain through their body. I remember the case of one very successful empath who, after she passed away, was found to be suffering from many deadly diseases and illnesses—any one of which could have caused her passing. She chose to heal others by taking their pain into her body and soon her body was riddled with the illnesses of others. If you choose to empathically heal others, you might consider clearing out the energy of your clients after each session, or better yet, creating a way to assist with their issue without running it through your body. The Rose Tool is excellent for this purpose. Use the Rose to make separations after a healing session, or place the Rose Tool between you and the client to prevent their illness from entering your space. Massage therapists can place a rose on the palm of each hand.


Back to the wedding reception: When the beautiful bride falls into the pool, the Sympathizer also matches the excited energy and wades into the water, waist deep, to reach as far as his arms will stretch in the attempt to save the beautiful, splashing, angry, bride. The result? Sympathizer is not successful at all, just really wet and tired. Like empathy, sympathy comes from a place of disempowerment. Pulling someone out of the situation they created for themselves (and we do create all our situations) doesn’t assist them in untangling from the patterns and habits that got them there in the first place. You might know of friends who come to you again and again with the same issue and demonstrate no change in their behavior that might pull themselves out of the mud.


As Compassionate Rescuer, when the beautiful bride nose-dives into the pool, you calmly sit at the edge of the swimming pool with a long pole and offer it to the now, not-so-beautiful, bride. “Oh my, I see you’re in a really messy predicament. What do you think would be the best way for you to change this? Here is a strong stick, if you are interested in using it.” You don’t get wet and she has the empowering experience of solving her own problem and pulling herself out of her situation. Empathizer and Sympathizer may be forcing assistance and advice onto the bride that she may not be willing, able or ready to accept. The Compassionate One gives her a choice and the tool to help herself. Such a compassionate hand may completely change the bride’s life to one of greater Personal Power and Confidence. That is truly assisting another to step up, dry themselves off, laugh at themselves and be who they came here to be. Just like you have.


drnet5 25th August 2011 7:09 am

Thank you for sharing the article
I have been considering those three terms for the past two or three weeks and your ideas and sentiments resonated with me. Just one question:
What is the Rose Tool?

Thank you, thank you, thank you,

Leonardo Mancilla 25th August 2011 9:14 am

Wonderful Jim, I love your ability to put everything in such a clear perspective. Now, I not only understand it myself but I also know a way to teach it. Blessings and Love!

themaster 25th August 2011 9:50 am

Jim Self is one of my teachers :)

This is the rose tool..


Sunny 26th August 2011 2:23 am

Dear Roxane,

I see. So if we are using compassion we will be empowering the other
person and at the same time we will not be giving away our power -that means
that compassion is a win-win situation.

Thanks for helping me understand the difference in these seemly similar emotions.

BTW, I am learning a lot of new things from the Mastering Alchemy website.
I highly recommend the website to anyone who is interested in Jim Self and Roxane's work.


dineega 27th August 2011 3:03 am

really interesting take on difference between empathy and sympathy. the way compassion is defined is exactly how I define empathy to my counselling students, the empathy description is just a deeper sympathy trap... empathy in counsellor training means understanding the others predicament and feelings and empowering them to help themselves as in the compassion description... 'just saying' :)

Yoel 28th August 2011 7:27 am

Differences are what separate us. Let's take the more natural approach and REACT for the fun of it without "thinking" what is good for us or not. If one is prepared, mostly, for the projected future situations of events already planned and lived ahead - IN the head, what room, then, for the spontaneous NOW?

I would stay clear of any temptation to "think" that a woman fallen into a swimming pool on her, or anybody else's, wedding day, would somehow be a time to contemplate the philosophies of what is good for one person or another.

Is such simple conjecture the appropriate response for a rare, and accidental fall into a spontaneous situation? My first question would not be to myself: Well, how often does this happen to her?

My first scream would be to her: Are you alright? Then my next reaction would be to jump in and save her, for she might be drunk and I don't want to assume that she isn't.

Jump in! Get wet! That's the fun of life. Illusion's judgment based on happenstance conjecture is fool's gold. It will bring a pat on the back, but not a lending hand.


Keep updated with Spirit Library

Author Information

Roxane Burnett

As an author and teacher, Roxane has been offering tools for developing intuition and Personal Power to individuals, businesses and women’s groups since 1994. Following a successful career as an art director for two major corporations and as manager of her own design firm, she joined Jim and co-founded A Course in Mastering Alchemy.


Roxane Burnett Archives