Pity versus Empathy

Pity is feeling bad for someone. Empathy is feeling bad with someone.

This is a picture of the feeling buddies that I’ve used for years with my boys to name their feelings. There are songs and worksheets through Conscious Discipline that we use as well. It is sometimes astonishing to me how much I learn from attempting to teach my boys about their emotions and how important it is.

For instance, this school year, my 4 year old started coming home pretty much every day primed to have a meltdown. At first, I did interpret the behavior and commentary as insubordination and punished him accordingly. Then, I finally realized that he was holding in those big feelings all day at school and when he was able to relax, they all came out. Once we figured that out, the time after school has gotten a LOT smoother and I’ve been able to show him much more empathy than before. We also can’t plan outings right after school without a lot of planning.

I often ponder the differences between pity and empathy as I encounter different people and very different reactions to my diagnosis. Initially, I didn’t tell anyone and often reacted angrily when people would ask about my bald head or why I was limping. Now, I often use my diagnosis as a bit of a weapon, dropping that information like a bomb on unsuspecting people I want to feel bad. Yep, I have used the knowledge of my diagnosis to make people feel bad at times, sometimes for honorable purposes and sometimes just to get what I want or because I’m mad at something. I get it, not so nice. I’m not above fighting with every tool in my arsenal.

The different responses I receive have a lot to do with if the person is feeling pity or empathy. The ones who pity me, will acknowledge the information, usually in a surfacey way and move on without engaging or feeling much of anything. The rare ones who show empathy, are literally stopped in their tracks.

The differences are profound.

With the ones who demonstrate pity, I often feel dirty after talking with them. The concept of pearls before swine comes to mind and usually I regret giving these people information about me. Many of the people I talk to at my insurance company or my cancer center fall into this category. They may feel bad for me, but it doesn’t change their behavior, they don’t do anything differently and much of what they do or don’t do makes my life much more difficult.

The people who show empathy are rare and their reactions often surprise me. I live with death all the time, so talking about things that seem normal now often surprise others. I had an extremely poignant conversation with the lady doing my facial at the spa for my birthday. She was in tears and made a donation to Metavivor right in front of me. That was powerful.

As 2020 ramps up, I am reminded that to enter into real relationships, empathy is a necessary ingredient. Remembering how I feel when on the receiving end of both pity and empathy helps me to remember which one is more important.

How will you show empathy?

48 thoughts on “Pity versus Empathy

  1. Very good post. So inspiring to read how you teach your boys about their emotions. Let them feel what they feel and understand it. Pity seems a wasted emotion. Recently people told me they had pity for people who were living a life they thought deserved pity when I considered those people were maybe living exactly the life they wanted. Empathy yeah. So many lack it.

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    1. So true!! I find that my boys teach me so much more about my emotions than I probably teach them. What I know I’ve taught them is the language to explain their feelings. Thank you for reading and commenting!!

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  2. Your strength and honesty are humbling. I admire you and look forward to the next lesson. So many among us don’t have any idea if the difference between pity and empathy. Very well spoken!

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  3. Thanks for making this distinction. It helped me realize and tag what it was I hated about my previous oncologist’s office. They treated me like I was old, feeble, (insert other such words) and I left there every time hating them! New onc’s office is the exact opposite. Medical providers need to know that just because we have a horrible disease doesn’t mean we’re falling apart AND it doesn’t do us any favors to treat us that way!

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      1. This really makes me pause and think about how I respond to people in their struggles/distress. I gleaned that empathy invites/builds relationship and pity repels it. Also, wish I had that “feelings board” when my kids were little (or not so little…would be great for teens too, young adults, husbands…😆). I’ve grown through what you’ve shared here and in other writings and for that I am grateful. But saddened that the platform for my growth is so costly to you. Love you Abigail. 💕

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  4. I wonder to what degree people who are in insurance and the like have simply become inured to those going through serious illnesses because this is their daily job, just as most people are no longer fazed by mass shootings? I feel as if many are failing to see strangers as real people anymore.
    I think most people have difficulty with empathy rather than sympathy, and sympathy is not pity; pity, I agree, is a superficial and sometimes self-righteous emotion.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, you are so right. Compassion fatigue is absolutely a thing and people who are caring for those of us who are actively dying are at great risk. I try to remind myself of this when dealing with people at my cancer center. Thank you for reading and so thoughtfully commenting.

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  5. Abigail, you’re describing something important, but I recently discovered some interesting distinctions the brain shows between empathy and compassion that I think you’ll find interesting. I understand that pity is unhelpful at best; that doesn’t even enter into this discussion. According to what these researchers found, empathy is what leads to “empathic distress,” or burnout, while compassion enables the person to have reserves for being helpful as needed.
    I’ve taken the liberty of enclosing the link to my post. The empathy/compassion info is part of the overriding hope for a more compassionate world.
    https://annieasksyou.com/2019/12/28/dont-you-think-the-world-could-use-a-little-anger-management-heres-a-way-that-just-may-help/

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting! I’ve definitely seen “compassion fatigue” the longer I’ve been living with mbc. Seems that some people only have a certain amount of compassion before they burn out, but to think the same thing of empathy is novel to me. I can see how that would happen. Thank you for sharing!

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      1. From what I learned, it’s the empathy that’s fatiguing because people exhaust themselves living in another person’s shoes. Compassion—doing for the person rather feeling like the person—enables one to function for the long haul. It may seem only semantics, but the brain studies appear to uphold this view. It was a revelation to me because I’ve always prided myself on being empathetic, but I can see the validity.
        The important message is that compassion can be taught. And that’s hopeful for humankind.
        I realize this is far more than semantic to you. I hope you encounter only compassionate people—and the pitiful pitiers keep their thoughts and pronouncements to themselves!

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      2. It is hopeful for humankind that compassion can be taught! In my experience, unfortunately there are way too many people in healthcare who need to be taught some compassion. It’s sad and it makes dealing with the healthcare system while dying a lot more daunting. 😢

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  6. Pity is distancing. I like the term compassion better than empathy because it literally means “with passion,” in other words, real feeling that can tend to spark action. The example of your spa lady is exactly what I mean. She felt moved, deeply, and then acted on that feeling immediately. Thanks for making me muse about this!

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  7. I am so sorry, Abigail, that you must confront yet another unnecessary continual spirit crusher on this harsh enough path.
    Perhaps an Op-Ed someplace detailing these specific experiences might be a wake up call to clueless offenders? Maybe in one of the Florida papers?

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Abigail,

    Another thought-provoking read. I agree, pity makes the one receiving it feel worse. It’s condescending. Empathy and compassion on the other hand, usually make the person on the receiving end feel better because they feel genuinely cared about. I appreciate what Ms D said, “pity is distancing”. Empathy and compassion are the opposite.

    Thanks for writing about this.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post, Abigail! This is such a powerful post and I so agree with you! Pity is such an insult! When someone pities us, we feel mocked! Empathy is so much better and we can tell the difference.

    Thank you so much for this insightful article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that people facing the same or similar experience can more easily empathize. I also think there are those people who are extremely sensitive and able to put themselves in other’s shoes. This is also called intuition, in my experience. Thank you for reading and commenting!!

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  10. Very well articulated, your post resonated with me. I agree, there is a thin red line, separating empathy and sympathy. But it is profound difference as you mentioned. It takes a different level of maturity to both understand and practice it.

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      1. Absolutely there are! They are all around us, sometimes even without our knowing. But many have not seen life enough or haven’t broadened their horizons to see that scope. I’ll like to empathise with them, while being circumspect about my own capabilities to do just that. I hope i get there someday. For now, i think your post really made me introspect.
        Wish u a great week ahead, Abigail!

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