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How to help others with compassion, not sympathy or empathy

Updated: Apr 22, 2021

Helping others in need

Right now, many people are wanting to help each other survive the never-ending chaos appearing in the world. It is right now that we need more love, compassion and support than ever before to carry us through.

There might be moments that crop up where you are asked for advice, or someone comes to you in need of genuine help. If you are someone that likes to help other people it is useful to understand the ways of actually effectively doing this.

Whilst pondering upon this subject, Zen Jungle came to the conclusion that it would be worth a discussion upon three significant components that tend to come up when we are offering help and service to others. These components are sympathy, empathy and compassion.

Sympathy, empathy and compassion

Below are rough definitions for each:

Sympathy – feeling sorry for others

Empathy – being able to understand others and feel what they feel.

Compassion- truth that will truly serve others, not always what they want to hear.

The most important thing to understand about these definitions, is that sympathy takes you backwards, empathy is neutral and compassion always takes you forwards.

It is quite clear that compassion is the most useful approach out of the three, but it can be easy to get compassion confused with sympathy and empathy.

So we’ll break these three components down into a little more depth:


Sympathy, or feeling sorry for someone, is essentially enabling someone else to stay in or compounding the role of being a victim. It either reinforces or strengthens the feeling of being a victim.

Sometimes we can actually force the role of a victim onto somebody else when we offer an abundance of sympathy. All this does is suggest that this person does not have a capability to hold their own power, or that somebody or something else has taken their power away. This doesn’t mean denying anyone the understanding that they have been a victim in the past, or suggesting that someone should suppress their feelings over trauma they have experienced, but rather that it does not serve anyone to just reinforce the victim role in the present moment.


Empathy is understanding, knowing how the other person feels and feeling it with them. This is a powerful tool, but it is only a ‘tool’, not an expression. Empathy must be used carefully and to take another forward in compassion.

If you are trying to help and support someone, just offering your empathy may be exactly what they want. It may make another person feel better for a moment, or may validate how they feel in an experience. However, is there a purpose to the empathy? Does it change anything? Does it have any forward movement? The answer is no, and it is possible that it can actually enable further dysfunctional behaviour. Behaviours that do not serve them.


Finally, compassion is having enough love for somebody else that you can help them move forwards with only total truth, in a way that serves them the most. The communication of compassion is key to forward motion, both for you and for those you love.

But isn’t empathy a good quality to have?

Now here’s where it gets interesting. As compassion is largely based around truth, it’s possible to be compassionate but to run the risk of sounding cold or uncaring. This is where empathy comes in: as a tool for constructing your compassion.

If you have empathy, you will know how someone feels and thus you will be better equipped to communicate intelligently, in a way that the other person understands and agrees with. You will be able to formulate your truth to avoid hurt or resistance.

Take the example of addiction: if a loved one wants to act on an addiction that is harming them and they ask for help, giving empathy might sound something like “I really understand how much you are craving this”, but compassion using empathy might sound something like “I understand that your craving feels desperate, but you must stop this pattern in order to live your life. I am happy to support in those steps but I do not see any future for you in continuing the way you are.”

I’m sure you can decide for yourself which sounds more helpful and serves the situation better.

Empathy is something you can have, but that has zero meaning when simply given. Empathy is “I know how you feel”, it is not in itself something you can action or a means to an end. Compassion constructed with empathy, is where your power lies. Understand how the other person feels, before delivering truth that will release them from their uncomfortable situation no matter how it makes them feel in the short term.

This does not mean you have to give someone every single step at once, you can use your empathy to discern what the most appropriate steps to offer are, depending on the given situation. Or perhaps you may decide that it is appropriate to give someone all the steps, but encourage them to focus on one step at a time to encourage the fullest, deepest recovery. Much of the time this is the most useful thing to do, as it gives the other person hope and a clear direction.

Change can only be made now

The truth is, the only time to make change is right now. Not tomorrow, not next week, not next year. Some people think that we all just need time in order to change, but that isn’t strictly true.

What is true, is that everyone needs a process in order to change, and if you are not moving forward with that process, then you are making the choice to stay stagnant.

Similarly, if others turn to you for help and you only offer time and an empathetic understanding of the roles they are playing or their dysfunctional thought patterns, then you are enabling the halt of their own process, suggesting to them that the change will come of its own accord.

Ultimately, if you want to be truly loving to others in need, definitely do not sympathise; but instead, use your empathy as a tool for sincere, honest, loving compassion.

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