Compassion Versus Pity and RA

Last updated: March 2021

I think that most people dislike the feeling of pity yet instinctively respond to compassion.  Why is that?  They both come from a place of expressing sorrow for another human being.  I decided to consider the difference.  

Anyone with a chronic disease like rheumatoid arthritis not only wants but, needs compassion and empathy in order to effectively manage the disease.  Having that level of emotional support can alleviate feelings of isolation and depression.

Pity makes one feel "less than"

Pity, it seems to me, somehow makes the recipient feel “less than” as though they are incapable of dealing with whatever the challenge may be, in this case, RA.  That, in turn, can lead to the person seeing themselves as a perpetual victim, holding them in that space and contributing to their suffering.

Pity often brings with it a lowering of one’s self-esteem or personal sense of worth.  RA has enough challenges that point to that, without having pity thrust upon us. 

Superiority and judgement

In our culture, pity seems to bring with it a sense that the person expressing it almost feels superior and even judgmental, as though, they have escaped this fate by some act of theirs by taking better care of their life.  By extension then, that implies you have some responsibility for what has happened to you.  Think about when someone goes bankrupt, for instance, and a person says, “I pity her and her family.” To me, that means maybe they could have done something differently to have avoided that eventuality. 

No actionable steps to provide assistance

It also does not have any action attached to it.  No offer of emotional help or any other form of assistance.  Pity, for me has only a negative side to it, even though it comes from the same family of expressing sorrow as compassion.

The power of empathy and compassion

Compassion, on the other hand, has an element of empathy to it.  Empathy being that genuine sense of putting yourself in the other person’s place in terms of the emotion you are expressing.

Empathy does not mean you have to have had an identical experience.  One need not have RA to be able to express empathy to someone who does.  Rather, it means one can emotionally relate to what another person is experiencing by tapping into their own sense of compassion.  It has a much deeper sense of genuine concern and does not carry the baggage of judgment that pity does. 

Compassion expressed is often accompanied by a true desire to alleviate, in any way possible, the challenges of the person facing the difficulties.  True empathetic compassion comes from the heart and is powerful and healing, holding the recipient in a safe space.

The person offering empathetic compassion becomes the recipient’s foundation, a place to lean on and learn from.  They are offering their hand in guidance and support, truly able to “feel” the pain and suffering of the person receiving this gift.

Can empathetic compassion be taught?

Studies suggest it can be.  By training our brains through meditation and participating in altruistic acts, there is evidence that one can learn empathetic compassion. It often starts with self-compassion first and moves outward to extend to others.

Try putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, practice kindness without needing praise or recognition.  Relax judgment and listen generously and actively.  Being in the moment with yourself and others leads the brain to a place of compassion and empathy.  It is a practice just like any other and one well worth cultivating.

Imagine how much better our world would be if we all practiced empathetic compassion!


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