Empathy & Compassion Are Both Important, But They're Not The Same—Here's How
Empathy and compassion are both factors that influence our relationships, life satisfaction, and ultimately, overall wellbeing. You might think of them as synonymous, but it would be more accurate to think of them like two sides of them same coin—and one of those sides is actually better for your health than the other.
Here's what to know about the difference between empathy and compassion according to experts and the latest research.
What is empathy?
Empathy is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "the ability to understand and share the feelings of another." As therapist Babita Spinelli, L.P., tells mindbodygreen, it involves putting yourself in someone else's shoes, imagining how they might feel, and experiencing a sense of resonance with their emotions.
"Empathy allows you to connect with others on an emotional level and recognize their perspectives, [such as] a parent feeling the disappointment or sadness of their child losing a game or struggling with a challenge," she explains.
And as licensed clinical psychologist Bruce L. Thiessen, Ph.D., previously told mindbodygreen, "When one expresses empathy, one draws upon personal experience in relating to another person in the midst of a similar experience or hardship," adding that an example of an empathetic statement might be, I also have recently lost a loved one and know what it feels like to experience that deep sense of sorrow and grief."
The caveat with empathy, however, is that it can quickly turn toxic when left unchecked. As one 2014 study on empathy published in the journal Current Biology1 explains, "In empathy, one feels with someone, but one does not confuse oneself with the other; that is, one still knows that the emotion one resonates with is the emotion of another. If this self–other distinction is not present, we speak of emotion contagion."
When emotion contagion happens, we can unwittingly take on the emotions of others—for better or worse. So if your coworker or partner is in a bad mood, you might start to feel that bad mood creep up on you too.
Examples of empathy:
- Feeling sadness or happiness for someone else’s sadness or happiness
- Statements like "I feel for you," or "I understand what you're going through"
- Sensing or literally feeling another person's emotional state
What is compassion?
Compassion is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as "sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others."
As Spinelli explains, compassion goes beyond empathy in that it involves feeling a deep concern and a desire to alleviate someone's suffering. "Compassion is characterized by a genuine sense of care, kindness, and a willingness to take action to help others in need," she adds.
And according to Thiessen, both empathy and sympathy, when coming from a place of sincerity, are sensations and open expressions of compassion. He says that compassion can come out of empathy, typically when there's a sharing of similar experiences with another person—but compassion from sympathy can be just as useful.
"For example," he notes, "the act of researching the types of suffering experienced by an abused child might increase a person's sympathy for abused children, regardless of whether or not the researching party had ever been a victim of child abuse."
Examples of compassion:
- Offering to help someone in need
- Apologizing for a mistake and owning up to when you've hurt someone
- Volunteering or donating
The difference between empathy vs compassion
So, what's the difference between the two? According to Spinelli, while empathy and compassion are closely related and can work in tandem when it comes to understanding and relating to the emotions and experiences of others, empathy focuses on understanding and sharing those emotions, while compassion extends sympathy by adding a proactive and caring response to suffering.
In this way, according to Thiessen, this sense of commonality with others is the key differentiator between the two. For instance, you could be compassionate for another's suffering without necessarily empathizing, and vice versa, you could feel empathy for someone's suffering without necessarily being compassionate about it.
"Empathic people, controlling for compassion, often use self-focused language and write about negative feelings, social isolation, and feeling overwhelmed," they write. "Compassionate people, controlling for empathy, often use other-focused language and write about positive feelings and social connections."
This research ultimately highlights that high empathy without compassion is related to negative health outcomes, while high compassion without empathy is related to positive health outcomes, positive lifestyle choices, and charitable giving. "Such findings favor an approach to moral motivation that is grounded in compassion rather than empathy," the study authors add.
And indeed, further research on empathy and pain perception has even shown that individuals with a high degree of empathy can quite literally feel the pain of others upon witnessing it. A fascinating evolutionary quirk to be sure—but not particularly great news if you're around negative people all the time.
How to cultivate more compassion
Practice self compassion
One of the best ways to cultivate more compassion for others is to be more compassion with yourself. As physician and New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine, Lissa Rankin, M.D. previously wrote for mindbodygreen, "As long as you have an inner general beating you up for your inevitable imperfections, you’ll find it difficult to be compassionate with others when they reveal their humanness."
Be a good listener
Along with nurturing your relationship with yourself, another way to cultivate compassion for others is by practicing generous listening. Coined by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., an expert in integrative medicine and relationship centered care, the practice of generous listening can be a gateway to compassion and a tool for healing.
According to her, “Listening creates a holy silence. When you listen generously to people, they can hear truth in themselves, often for the first time. And in the silence of listening, you can know yourself in everyone. Eventually, you may be able to hear, in everyone and beyond everyone, the unseen singing softly to itself and to you.”
The next time you're listening to someone, rather than interrupting, judging, or trying to offer solutions, Spinelli suggests active listening, acknowledging their feelings, finding ways to make sure they know they have your support.
Know that kindness doesn't mean people-pleasing
As Rankin explains, "Kindness doesn’t mean selling out what’s true for you in order to make someone else feel good. Authentic kindness stems from a place of wholeness within, where there is no separation between the giver and the receiver." She adds that whether you’re giving gifts, granting forgiveness, or showing someone love, "true kindness blesses you as much as it does the one you're serving."
The late spiritual leader Ram Dass has a great quote about this, in which he speaks on the illusion of separateness that keeps us disconnected from each other. "When you break out of that, you experience compassion that is not pity and not kindness, but compassion borne of identifying with the people around you," he says.
Is it better to be compassionate or empathetic?
Compassion and empathy are both important, however research suggests that compassion without empathy leads to better health outcomes than empathy without compassion.
Can you be empathetic but not compassionate?
Yes, it is possible to be empathetic (i.e. feeling the emotions of others) without being compassionate (i.e. trying to alleviate suffering).
Are there no significant differences between compassion and empathy?
Empathy and compassion are different things. Empathy focuses on understanding and sharing those emotions, while compassion extends sympathy by adding a proactive and caring response to suffering.
Does compassion mean empathy?
Compassion can come from a place of empathy, but it is not synonymous with empathy. Empathy is understanding and sharing the emotions of others, while compassion extends sympathy by adding a proactive and caring response to suffering.
While empathy and compassion are not the same, they can work in tandem to help us both relate to others, and further alleviate the suffering of others through compassionate giving of ourselves. Empathy without compassion can have negative health outcomes like isolation and overwhelm, but when you can access both, it's a recipe for a more connected and enriching life.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.