The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

Empathy and compassion are two human responses that most of us try to build. However, before we can improve our empathy and compassion, it is important to understand that they are not the same thing, even though people sometimes use the words interchangeably.

So, just what is the difference between empathy and compassion? Can you be compassionate while not being empathetic, or vice versa? Is one more important than the other? These are all significant questions, and answering them will go a long way to helping you be a more well-rounded human being.

Read more: 10 Ways To Become More Compassionate

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Empathy is the feelings of awareness we experience regarding other people’s emotions and includes our attempts at understanding what they are feeling. Compassion, on the other hand, is the emotional response we have based on sympathy that often causes us to want to help in some way. While these feelings and emotions often happen at the same, and in response to similar situations, there are important distinctions.

We can break empathy down into three different types: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate Empathy. The instinctual empathetic response that makes up cognitive empathy is deeply rooted in our brain’s chemical responses — it’s the thing that drives us to understand other people’s emotions. Practicing this type of empathy is good for our health and our personal relationships with others.

Emotional empathy is where empathy can actually take on a less healthy role in our lives. This kind of empathy goes beyond simply understanding how someone else feels. Emotional empathy is when we actually try to feel what another person is feeling.

Compassionate empathy is the happy medium between the two. According to Becka Borody “With this kind of empathy, we not only understand a person’s predicament and feel with them but are spontaneously moved to help, if needed.” The goal with compassionate empathy is to not become overwhelmed with emotions or immediately start trying to solve someone’s problem.

Can you be compassionate without being empathetic and vice versa?

The answer to this is complicated. It is fully possible to experience compassion without empathy, and empathy without compassion, but it can create a set of problems. Let’s look at a situation where you could feel empathy or compassion.

Assume that you and someone you care about are out walking in the woods. Your companion walks straight into a tree and injures their face. If you display no empathy at all (which is called apathy) you will appear insensitive, and maybe even a little mean.

Imagine saying to your companion, “Gosh, that looked like it hurt, but come on we have quite a ways to go still and it’s not that bad. You can keep going.” This person, would likely never go anywhere with you again.

Now, imagine the same scenario, where you display cognitive empathy, and say something like, “Oh, wow! You hit that tree really hard! How does it feel? Where does it hurt? Can you keep going?” This is a little better, and your friend likely won’t hate you. Everything about this response is designed to understand how the other person is feeling right now, but it doesn’t necessarily sound helpful.

If you respond from a place of deep emotional empathy, the situation might actually get worse. Your companion smashes into the tree, and you say, “Oh my gosh! That really must have hurt. It looks like it hurts a lot.”

You think for a moment and not being able to come up with a solution to help their pain; you decide the only thing to do is share their pain. So you say, “It isn’t fair that you suffer through this alone, I want to help!” And then ram your face into the tree. Now everyone is hurting, and you still have to get out of the woods…

Compassion would be the balancing act that helps juggle these responses. You could try saying something, “Are you alright? How are you feeling?” Wait for them to respond, they might have a high pain tolerance and be ok, or they might be really hurting and having a concussion. Knowing how the other person actually feels, and not assuming they feel how you feel, is an important skill.

Let’s say they say, “Oh my God, that really stung, and I feel like I am seeing stars, but I should be fine in a minute or two.” The compassionate response would look something like this, “I’m sorry that happened! I bet it did sting! Why don’t we sit for a minute so you can collect your bearings before we go again?”

These might seem a little over the top, but think about how many times you have responded less than kindly with someone’s struggles because you couldn’t relate. You probably didn’t mean to appear uncaring, but it happens.

I had a tragic and abusive childhood that was filled with abandonment, neglect, and emotional abuse, on top of all the normal childhood and teenage issues. I thought I had moved on and had this all under control, until my daughter, who has had a pretty idyllic childhood, experienced teenage strife.

She would cry and talk about the things that upset her, and I didn’t do a good job with empathy. It was hard for me to understand why she just couldn’t see that these were ‘insignificant’ problems and be grateful for everything she had going for her.

She is gorgeous, smart, and well-loved. I couldn’t fathom what more she could need, and I became the parent that didn’t show her empathy for the things that were deeply bothering her. Clearly, this did not go well and ended up with us going to therapy to figure out parts of the problem.

Now, think of the time that someone important to you was experiencing something so profoundly heartbreaking and terrible. You started imagining how you would feel in their situation, while simultaneously trying to help them out of this dark place.

This likely left you feeling drained, emotionally depleted, and feeling lost yourself. This is the downfall of empathy. You end up taking on the emotions of others, and then you can’t help them or you. It’s like being on an airplane and fixing your oxygen mask so you don’t pass out and can actually help others.

Adding in some compassion can help provide the balance you need to avoid either extreme. According to Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D., “Empathy for the plight of others is very positive and powerful. In it, the empathetic person is able to imagine being in the place of the troubled person and feel what they feel. In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels.”

He adds that “Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self-awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual the be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.”

Is one more important than the other?

Empathy is a vital human characteristic that helps us form connections and an understanding of each other. It is essential to our relationships, helps us build our support systems, and keeps us from being lonely. However, it is not a magic rainbow of light; it comes with a dark side.

According to Rasmus Hougaard, empathy without compassion can have negative effects on our ability to lead. He says, “without compassion, empathy is a danger for leaders. As controversial as this may sound, the reasoning is simple: Empathy is the brain’s wired tendency to identify with those who are close to us—close in proximity, close in familiarity, or close in kinship. And when we empathize with those close to us, those who are not close or are different seem threatening. When unchecked, empathy can create more division than unity.”

He believes that compassion is better for humanity and offers these four reasons why:

  • Empathy is impulsive. Compassion is deliberate.
  • Empathy is divisive. Compassion is unifying.
  • Empathy is inert. Compassion is active.
  • Empathy is draining. Compassion is regenerative.

He makes several interesting points, while also showing other ways that empathy and compassion differ from another. So while it is possible to have one without the other, it isn’t really the best outcome. And while one is not more important per se, compassion is a skill that you can learn and build upon, while empathy is a human response, that doesn’t always serve us well.

All we can really do as people is offer empathy and compassion, and help when we can. We must learn how to offer those things in a way that doesn’t cause ourselves, or even other people, harm. Being aware of the difference between empathy and compassion is a great place to start because you can choose how to respond and add some balance to difficult situations, and maybe make them just a little better for everyone involved.

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