My 5 Tips on Distinguishing Pity from Compassion

Both compassion and pity recognize and validate someone’s (or your own) distress, pain, difficulties. These initial similarities lead many people to consider pity and compassion to be one and the same. In an effort to steer clear of pity, people inadvertently deny themselves compassion, which is both a healing and propelling emotion.

1. After recognizing and validating distress, pity parks itself and shines a spotlight on the distress – drawing everyone’s attention to the distress, not allowing there to be any other focus.

2. Compassion moves from the recognition and validation phase into a soothing stance (i.e. soothing the distress) and then concludes with an inclination for action – action that will somehow end the distress.

3. Due to this inclination for action (note that the actual action is not an inherent part of compassion), compassion opens an individual up to be proactive – unlike pity which sucks someone’s agency into a black hole of inaction.

4. Pity has a tendency to repel people, which is quite unfortunate since someone in distress needs support from others, pity can even repel someone from themselves. While compassion tends to attract people – just think for a second would you rather spend time with your friend who pities him/herself or with your friend who strives to express compassion to self and others?

5. Overtime pity will tend to overemphasize, even exaggerate the difficulties (generally in an effort to get support, help, etc…) while compassion will have a far more accurate account of the pain. This more accurate accounting enables the pain, distress, difficulty to become only a part of the person versus becoming the majority (or all) of the person’s identity.

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