Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion – 361

Tradition 5 tells us that part of our recovery is in finding compassion for our alcoholic friends and relatives. What is compassion, and how is it different from sympathy or empathy?

  • Definitions (from
    • To feel sympathy, it means you are able to understand what the person is feeling. 
    • Empathy is viscerally feeling what another feels. 
    • When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e., empathy) or you recognize that the person is in pain (i.e., sympathy), and then you do your best to alleviate the person’s suffering from that situation.
  • From dictionaries
    • Sympathy: feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune.
    • Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.
    • Compassion: sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it
  • But what does it mean in recovery?
  • Tradition 5: … by encouraging and understanding our alcoholic relatives,
  • How? How did I go from anger and resentment to understanding and compassion?
  • What does our literature say? From How Al-Anon Works
    • Slogans serve as gentle, calming reminders that our circumstances might not be as impossible or as desperate as they at first appear. These concise expressions of wisdom offer quick reassurance that we really are able to cope with whatever life brings, prompting us to take constructive action and to treat ourselves and others with compassion and respect.
    • Few of us realize that the alcoholics in our lives often suffer terribly, sometimes even more than we do. By listening, we can learn to distinguish the person from the disease, to have compassion for their efforts and their pain, and to recognize that they, too, are powerless over alcohol.. 
  • Courage to Change Jan 5: I was terribly confused about the meaning of “compassion” when I came to Al-Anon. I thought it meant making excuses for the alcoholic or covering bad checks.

Readings and Links

We read from Courage to Change, Feb 11 and Jan 5. Also How Al-Anon Works, Chapter 9 (slogans), and Chapter 6 (The Family Disease of Alcoholism).

We discussed definitions of sympathy, empathy, and compassion from

An article from Psychology Today Compassion is Better than Empathy informed part of our conversation.


Please call us at 734-707-8795 or email with your questions or experience, strength and hope. Or just leave a comment right here.

Music from the Show

The Band – The Weight
The Weight | Featuring Ringo Starr and Robbie Robertson | Playing For Change | Song Around The World
Alanis Morissette – Hand In My Pocket
Bob Dylan – Shelter From the Storm

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