Sympathy vs. Compassion? How to Comfort While Guarding Dignity

March 6, 2024 ◊ By Elisa Everts ◊

Sympathy vs. Compassion? How to Comfort While Guarding Dignity

Sympathy vs. Compassion​

What is the difference between sympathy and compassion? Is one better than the other? Although sympathy and compassion are often treated as synonyms and have very similar etymologies (sympathy means to share common feelings or experiences, and compassion means to suffer together), in our culture there are some important differences. Sympathy is more aligned with pity and pity comes from a person assuming a higher vantage point looking down on the weakness of another. Nobody wants to be put in this one down position.

Compassion is a much more egalitarian sentiment. The idea of suffering together/with someone is essentially egalitarian. As a blind woman, my mother has had a lot of people say, "I feel sorry for you," and oh, how she bristles at that! It is such a condescending thing to say. She doesn't want anyone's sympathy or their pity. She manages amazingly and if anything, she deserves their admiration, not their pity.

Recognize Their Strength​

When a person is suffering, the last thing she needs is for her would-be comforter to take a position of superiority over her and ascribe more weakness than is merited. Just because a person is suffering does not make them weak. We must be very careful not to rob people of their dignity when we are trying to express our compassion.

Most people will tell you that the last thing they want is sympathy, for exactly this reason. It implies an asymmetrical relationship where the comforter has more power and the comfortee is positioned as being weak. This is rubbing salt in their wounds. It is assaulting their dignity (and thanks for noticing that clever pun).

Of course, sometimes they will feel weak and it's ok to let them feel weak. I'm definitely not saying that we force strength on people when they are suffering. Respect means we let them determine how they feel and how they want to be treated. Assuming weakness is neither generous nor respectful.

What I Wanted When I Had Stage IV Cancer

When I had stage four cancer, I did not want sympathy. Compassion, yes, sympathy no. What I wanted was for my friends and family to recognize my emotional strength and to treat me like an accomplished athlete who was up for the feat before her (never mind that I don't have an athletic bone in my body-it's a metaphor, friends!) But for Pete's sake, I did not want anyone to view me as a victim of cancer or of anything! I am no victim. I want you to support me in my agency over my situation.
"I'm sorry you're going through this" is quiet different from "I feel sorry for you." Even more comforting, my favorite comment from my friend Soncee was, "Cancer has never faced a tougher opponent." That's the kind of encouragement I think people really crave. It makes them feel strong, which makes them feel like fighting, or at least makes them feel that they can go on. Also, remember to ask people about their preferences. Do you want to talk about your cancer? What do you find most helpful? ​

Be Compassionate​

Be compassionate. Be thoughtful. Don't victimize people. Focus on their strengths while you acknowledge the complete trash sandwich that cancer is. By offering compassion, admiration, and genuine encouragement, we can help each other manage hope.

Elisa square portrait

About the author

Dr. Elisa Everts is the founder of Evertree Hope Management and is a dynamic public speaker, author and trainer. Dr Everts is passionate about helping cancer patients and bereaved people in their quest to survive and live a full life during and after cancer and grief. She has the personal experience of surviving Stage IV cancer and the loss of many loved ones. She understands the challenges inherent in these experiences and the importance of cultivating hope through the stories we tell others, and even more importantly, to ourselves.

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2 thoughts on “Sympathy vs. Compassion? How to Comfort While Guarding Dignity”

  1. Funny thing is what you said about managing hope feels like what I do when I coach, “By offering compassion, admiration, and genuine encouragement…”

    Elisa, I am profoundly grateful you chose to take up the pen, so to speak 😅

    Who even uses writing stick today!?!

    This world needs more what you have to say.

    1. Thank you so much, Donna. I am profoundly grateful that you are finding value in my words. As the Afghans say when they received a compliment, You see something beautiful because your eyes are beautiful (the beauty is in your eyes). (:

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Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

Elisa Everts, phd

Speaker | Author | Educator

Finding Hope in Cancer & Grief

I speak to medical professionals and patients, helping them provide hope when there seems to be none. If you or your organization need someone to help process the difficult topics of cancer and grief, let's set up a complimentary call, 703-656-6691, ee@elisaeverts.com.

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