Sympathy Kills the Spirit

Uncategorized Jan 24, 2021

Sympathy Kills the Spirit

One evening several years ago, my wife and I drove an hour to go visit a church and listen to a speaker named Nancy. Nancy had a miraculous story of having survived the July 17, 1981 collapse of a catwalk in the Hyatt Regency. To say the least, Nancy was a dynamic speaker. Just my opinion, listening to her speak was accompanied by some “churchy” activity that was quite bizarre and Nancy didn’t shy away from theatrics. But there was one phrase that she said that stuck with me all these years.

“Sympathy kills the Spirit.”

If you will pardon me for waxing a wee bit academic for a moment, I will tell you why I agree with Nancy’s assertion.

Let’s start with this summary from the February 8, 2016 Blog about the difference between “Sympathy” and “Empathy”



Both have the same Greek root word “pathos” meaning “suffering, feeling”.

“Sym” means “with or together with”

“Em” means “within, in”

Sympathy entered the English language in the mid-1500s broadly meaning “agreement or harmony in qualities between things or people.”

Empathy entered the English Language in the late 1800s with a somewhat technical and now obsolete meaning from the field of psychology, which referred to the physiological manifestation of feelings. The term is now most often used to refer to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, thereby vicariously experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person.

To sum up the differences between the most commonly used meanings of these two terms: sympathy is feeling compassion, sorrow, or pity for the hardships that another person encounters, while empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another.



This excerpt from Neele Burthon, M.D. in the May 22, 2015 post on Psychology Today thrown something on both ends of the sympathy-empathy engagement spectrum. “Pity” on the left and “Compassion” on the right.

Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.
Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion, I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience.

Upon reading the article, Robert Shelton, a psychologist in a Californian high school, designed this infographic. Source: Robert Shelton



I am not saying sympathy or pity is morally wrong. They serve a momentary purpose that can make an incredible difference in a person’s well-being. I just don’t think they goes far enough to allow for healing, growth, and lasting change; and they do not include the dynamic of personal responsibility. Bad things happen to people by no fault of their own. The transcendence described above is much more likely with compassion, but it doesn’t happen magically and it doesn’t take place just because “I” engage with a person compassionately.

For true transcendence, “they” (the other person) must be engaged at a level of own-life stewardship. How your compassion causes you to be engaged is just a pathway for the other person to be more engaged in their own outcomes.

Why is this important?

Think about the people you reach out to when you have a problem – your strongest friendships and close working relationships. Consider the patterns of communication in which you typically engage in these moments. Does it stay on the “pity” end of the spectrum or on the “compassion” side? Is there anyone you go to from whom you are just looking for pity? When you are dealing with a life issue, do you just want someone to feel sorry for you or are you really looking for a fresh perspective, hopefulness and alternative solutions?

If you are working with an employee whose life issues are impeding their performance, how do you respond and more importantly, how do you help them respond? There are plenty of work cultures that can best be described as pathetic because the habitual from of engagement is a pity party – a bunch of people sitting around singing their favorite hymn, “Oh, Ain’t it Awful!”

Again, pity isn’t bad. Some moments are so overwhelming and devastating that a “solution” is the last thing we need. But that is not where we need to pitch our tents.

Let’s not let sympathy kill the spirit of growth.


Rick Burris


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