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Sympathy, Empathy, Compassion, and Pity – How Are They the Same and How Are They Different?

Sympathy, compassion, empathy, pity “all denote the tendency, practice, or capacity to share in the feelings of others, especially their distress, sorrow, or unfulfilled desires,” according to Four similar words, four similar meanings. The mindsets of the first three words are usually welcome additions to the actions that help a person with a disability.

The fourth word, though, pity, has a different connotation that is not really appropriate to express to people who have any kind of disability.

The differences between sympathy, empathy, compassion, and pity.

Each entry below starts with a dictionary definition of the word. Here’s an example of how each word would apply in the real world:


Sympathy is the [least specific] of these terms, “signifying a general kinship with another’s feelings, no matter what kind.” A person can sympathize with another’s situation, but their emotional involvement is usually not very intense. Having sympathy for another’s situation does not typically entail going to great lengths to find a solution to the problem. For example, a person might have sympathy for a client’s physical limitations, but may not participate in the physical therapy program designed to address these limitations.


Empathy “refers to vicarious participation in the emotions, ideas, or opinions of others, the ability to imagine oneself in the condition or predicament of another.” An example of this is watching a play or movie and identifying with one of the characters to the point where the watcher feels what the character feels. Empathy is about “putting yourself in the other guy’s shoes.” At RISE, emphasis is placed on really getting where a person with a disability is coming from, and then basing decisions and actions on that understanding.


Compassion “implies a deep sympathy for the sorrows or troubles of another coupled to a powerful urge to alleviate the pain or distress or to remove its source.” For example, DSPs (Direct Service Professional) may demonstrate compassion when they do an extra little service for a client without being asked. Another example would be fixing a problem another person has solely to make that other person’s life easier and not out of any desire for personal gain.


Pity usually “suggests a kindly, but condescending, sorrow aroused by the suffering or ill fortune of others, often leading to a show of mercy.” This word and this behavior do not go down well with most people, much less those who have a disability. The biggest reason is that this word has a connotation of benign condescension. There is also a distinct lack of inclination to offer any help, whatsoever. An individual may encounter pity at work if they disclose their disability to co-workers. RISE can help with formulating responses to expressions of pity, verbal or nonverbal.


We cannot control the behavior of others, but we can always control how we respond to them. It is a good idea to prepare in advance “what you’re going to do about it.” RISE ( can help come up with a whole array of ways to deal with what to do or say when situations involving unwelcome expressions from others come about.