Empathy, Sympathy and Compassion

“Empathy Is Walking A Mile In Somebody Else’s Moccasins. Sympathy Is Being Sorry Their Feet Hurt”. (Rebecca O’Donnell)

The nature of our work as social workers, (or any caring profession for that matter) is dealing with some marginalised sections of society. We do our job because we care. By the very nature of ‘us’ caring, are we being empathic, sympathetic or compassionate? Let’s take a closer look at and see what the difference is.

Often without realising, we empathise with others in our role as social workers on a daily basis. Meaning we try to understand what our clients or their families are going through from their perspective. We often mentally and emotionally place ourselves in their position as a means of really understanding what things must be like for them. This is empathy.

According to Psychologists there are 3 types of empathy;

  • Cognitive empathy; the ability to understand someone else’s thoughts, feelings and emotions from a rationale viewpoint rather than an emotional viewpoint.
  • Emotional empathy; is otherwise referred to as emotional contagion, meaning you ‘catch’ someone else’s feelings, you literally feel what they are feeling.
  • Compassionate empathy; being able to understand how someone else is feeling and take appropriate action in order to help them.

According to Tear and Michalska, (2010), when we perceive, understand and react to the distress or need of another person, this is referred to as sympathy.

The word itself is said to have its origins in Greek ‘Syn’ meaning together and ‘Pathos’ meaning fellow feeling.

Spatial proximital sympathy refers to the level of sympathy we may feel towards someone or something that is geographically closer to us.

Likewise, sympathy for those who we feel are similar to us is called social proximity.

When we become exposed to repetitive situations that trigger our sympathy, we can become less sympathetic and this is what we refer to as compassion fatigue.

The word compassion stems from ‘Compati’ latin for ‘suffer with’. When we feel compassion, we are moved by the experiences of others so much that we want to take action as a means of assisting or preventing harm. A classic example is making a financial donation to a charity following a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

Compassion is noted as being a virtue, a moral quality that helps underpin how we view the world around us and respond to those within it.

As we mentioned before if we have too much exposure to pain and suffering we can become removed from the emotion of what others are going through.

How does Compassion fatigue affect us as professionals?

Compassion fatigue according to Figley, (2002) was a term first used by Carla Johnson in 1992 when referring to the repeated exposure of trauma by nurses in emergency situations. Figley explains those of us who have a greater ability to empathise with others are more likely to experience secondary trauma. The Professional Quality of Life Scale suggests burnout and secondary traumatic stress are closely linked to compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is a medically recognised condition these days and I can certainly recognise myself as experiencing this in the months leading to my ‘crash and burn’ and career break. I found myself literally feeling ‘nothing’ whilst clients and their families would be sat breaking their hearts in the midst of whatever crisis they were going through.

Prior to my career break, when I had what I now recognise as compassion fatigue, I often wonder whether not ‘caring’ for the people, actually made me a more effective social work practitioner in a pragmatic sense.

During my cold-hearted days, (I know I’m being hard on myself, but hey I’m reflecting!), as a social worker in adult care, not being emotional enabled me to take a step back from those long standing family disputes. You know the ones where one family member accuses another of something he or she said or did (or didn’t do but should have) 20-30 years ago.

Some families try to involve professionals within their family disputes as a means of having professionals ‘on their side’. I wonder whether being less emotional made me more objective and thereby more able to rationalise information I was gathering, thus placing the service user slap bang in the centre of the assessment process as well as enabling me to stand back from any possible hidden motivations of family.

But what about those of us who are not very empathic? Can we learn to become empathic?

Can We Learn To Be Empathatic?
Yes, according to Roman Krznaric, (2015) in his book, Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It. Krznaric, (2010) expands upon five easy steps to expand your empathy;

  • Cultivate A Curiosity About Strangers, talk to them about their lives, interests and views of the world around them.
  • Learn From Your Experiences; reflect upon your own experiences of needing empathy directed towards you from someone else and when this did or did not occur. How did it feel? Explore through reflection times when you failed to empathise with someone.
  • Tackle Your Family Empathy Deficit; sometimes our families are the very ones who fail to be empathic to our needs. Try and put yourself in their shoes and view the world from their perspective.
  • Take An Imaginative Journey, we know our thoughts can influence our feelings, so in taking ourselves on a mental journey, we develop that part of our imagination whereby we can ‘see’ places in our minds eye. Imagine what someone else is thinking or feeling.
  • Challenge Your Prejudices; we sometimes make sweeping judgements about groups of people without even realising we are doing so. Notice yourself doing this and stop. Take a step back and take a long pause reflecting upon what someone’s life may be like. What is life like for someone with chronic back pain? What is life like for someone who has mental health issues?

Theory Of Inner Imitation
When it comes to social work it is actually suggested that many of us come into the profession having had difficult life experiences. So, in essence we may already be de-sensitised to the trauma of others we end up trying to help (Collins, 2014). With the exception of a few studies over the years that showed males are more empathic than women, Kristen Zaleski et al, (2016) explains women are usually more empathic than men.

Whilst there will no doubt be various reasons for this, which I am not exploring here, Riess, (2010) explores the theory of inner imitation. Riess, (2010) drawing upon the work of Carr et al, (2003) explains how neural relay mechanisms allows those of us who are empathic to unconsciously mimicy postures, mannerisms, and facial expressions of others, (Ibid).

Carr et al, (2003) claims in doing so, the same part of our brains that stimulate motor and sensory areas are activated. An example used by Avenanti et al (2005) is when a patient who has their hand muscle pricked by a needle. The person who is administering, (i.e. the nurse) will also ‘feel’ the needle as the same motor and sensory areas will be activated just by observation.

I know I cringe and close my eyes if watching anything gory on casualty on a Saturday night! So, in essence, if our brains share neural circuits in motor, sensory, and emotional areas to help us feel and, in turn, understand what another person is feeling, then possibly this element of our brain functioning decreases if we become burnt out. Riess, (2017) claims this is exactly what happens and as such, we need to become much more aware of how we take care of ourselves as a means of helping us to maintain our levels of empathy.

For me in our role as social workers, I see empathy as being a major requirement to allow us to really get into the heart of people’s lives – those who we are trying to help. But I also recognise how in the past this has led to my own struggles with mental wellbeing and professional burn out just by trying to help others.

Its these very experiences that we try and bring to your attention, so you can learn from them and in turn hopefully, promote your own physical, mental, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.

By Lisa Watson, Co-author,

How to Thrive in Professional Practice: A Self-care Handbook
available for preorder here


Avenanti, A., Bueti, D., Galati, G. and Aglioti, S.M. (2005) Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation Highlights The Sensorimotor Side Of Empathy For Pain in National Neuroscience, 2005 Jul; 8(7):955-60.

Carr, L., Lacoboni, M., Dubeau, M.C., Mazziotta, J.C. and Lenzi, G.L. (2003) Neural Mechanisms Of Empathy In Humans: A Relay From Neural Systems For Imitation To Limbic Areas in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 2003 Apr 29; 100(9):5497-502.

Collins, Franklin, M. (2014) “The Relationship Between Social Media and Empathy” STATESBORO, GEORGIA https://digitalcommons.georgiasouthern.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2189&context=etd

Figley, C. (Ed) (2002). Treating Compassion Fatigue. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Krznaric, R., (2015), Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, Penguin Random House

Krznaric, R., (2010) Five Ways To Expand Your Empathy https://www.romankrznaric.com/outrospection/2010/01/01/324

“Professional Quality of Life” Professional Quality of Life Measure https://www.proqol.org/Home_Page.php

Riess, H., (2010) Empathy In Medicine–A Neurobiological Perspective in JAMA. 2010 Oct 13; 304(14):1604-5.

Riess, H. (2017), The Science of Empathy in the Journal of Patient Experience, 2017, 4(2): 74–77.

Skills You Need For Life https://www.skillsyouneed.com/

Tear, J., and  Michalska, KJ (2010). “Neurodevelopmental Changes In The Circuits Underlying Empathy And Sympathy From Childhood To Adulthood”. Developmental Science. 13 (6): 886–899

Zaleski, K. et al (2016) Empathy in Social Work Education https://www.researchgate.net/publication/311689289_Empathy_in_Social_Work_Education

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