Raise your hand if you understand the difference between sympathy, empathy, and compassion.  Congratulations! It’s not the easiest distinction to make, and it will likely come in handy the next time someone close to you is in pain.

According to Dictionary.com, sympathy is to have feelings of pity and sorry for someone else’s misfortune.

On the other hand, and from the same source, empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, often as a result of personal experience.

Now, let’s factor in the third emotion, compassion.  Dictionary.com says that compassion is a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

By way of example, let’s say you’re hanging out poolside with your sister and her kids when, out of  nowhere, your nephew is stung by a bee.  He’s only five years old, and he’s obviously terrified, crying hysterically.  You have sympathy for your nephew if you care that he’s scared and his arm is hurting.  You have empathy for him if you’ve been stung by a bee yourself and understand what it feels like.  And you’re feeling compassion if you want to take away his pain.

Are you confused?  Can you have both sympathy and empathy?  Can you have sympathy and compassion?  Can you have empathy without compassion?  My personal opinion is that the answer is “yes” to all of the above questions (including that I’m often confused about these feelings).  And, as with most emotions, I also think we have a choice.  That is assuming, of course, that we have learned how to feel them.

What if you believe you never learned sympathy, empathy, and compassion as a child?  It’s not too late.  And if you have not taught these vital emotions to your children, it’s also not too late.  Whether learning for yourself or teaching someone else, please take a look at these four steps.

First, learn how to recognize your own feelings.  Become familiar with specific words that best describe your emotions at any given time.  If you lost your job, are you sad or devastated?  Are you worried or terrified?

Second, recognize what you think others are feeling.  Your neighbor’s husband has dementia.  Is she depressed, overwhelmed, or in denial?

Third, imagine yourself in another person’s shoes.  Your best friend had to put her poodle down.  How would you feel if it was your beloved yellow lab?

Fourth, reach beyond your own comfort zone.  Volunteer at a food bank or at a women’s shelter. Expanding your frame of reference by helping others who are less fortunate is not only eye-opening, it’s tremendously rewarding.

We’re all experiencing strong feelings these days, regardless of the cause(s).  Wouldn’t our world be a more peaceful, less divisive place, if we could practice a bit more sympathy, empathy, and compassion?

Try it and let me know how you’re feeling.