Compassion vs Empathy—The Best Way You Can Help Others

Compassion vs Empathy: What are the similarities? What are the differences? How does understanding the similarities and differences help us in our daily lives? We will take a deep dive into the relationship between compassion and empathy in this article, and we will shed some light on how you can cultivate more compassion in your life and help both yourself and the people around you.

Compassion vs Empathy: Understanding the Differences

Understanding Empathy

Empathy is the sense of understanding and feeling another person’s emotions. It can be visceral, whereby we experience the other person’s emotions. This is known as emotional empathy. It can also be intellectual—we intellectually understand what another person is going through but do not necessarily experience those emotions at the moment. This is known as cognitive empathy.

Empathy, though important, can also be detrimental to our well being. That is not to say that you should avoid empathy altogether. It is an important part of social bonding and helps us cultivate loving and healthy relationships. Still, if we are always empathetic to others and fail to place boundaries around that empathic energy, we are likely to experience empathy burnout. It is possible to feel empathy for others without getting drawn into situations that are not our business, and this is where compassion comes in.

Another Word for Empathy

To help understand empathy better, we have created a list of related or similar words to empathy:

  • pity
  • sympathy
  • understanding
  • care
  • concern
  • regard
  • thoughtfulness
  • mercy
  • sensitivity
  • commiseration
  • mindfulness
  • consolation
  • rapport
  • harmony
  • fellow feeling

Opposite of Empathy

After learning what empathy is, it is important to understand what empathy does not look like. Below a the list of opposite words for empathy:

  • apathy
  • insensitivity
  • antagonism
  • antipathy
  • unfeelingness
  • disregard
  • self-centeredness
  • neglect
  • unconcern
  • disinterest
  • dismissiveness
  • dispassion
  • insensibility
  • numbness
  • thoughtlessness
  • stone-heartedness
  • hostility

Understanding Compassion

Compassion is, by definition, relational. Compassion means ‘to suffer with,’ which implies a basic mutuality in the experience of suffering. The emotion of compassion springs from the recognition that the human experience is imperfect.

Kristin Neff

Compassion involves empathy, but they are not the same thing. Empathy is a feeling, while compassion is a response to that feeling. We can practice and develop and offer myriad benefits in return. While empathy happens within and stays there, compassion originates from within but radiates outward. It is a motivating force that drives us to help those for whom we feel empathy.

2016 study published in Clinical Psychology Review explored the nature of compassion and how it can be measured. According to results from the study, genuine compassion consists of the following five core aspects:

  • Recognizing other people’s suffering
  • Understanding that everybody suffers to some degree, and that is simply part of being human
  • Feeling for someone else’s pain
  • Tolerating uncomfortable feelings for the sake of helping another person
  • Feeling motivated to act, or acting, to relieve the suffering of another person’s pain

So compassion begins with recognizing other people’s suffering: emotional awareness and sympathetic concern. Understanding that everybody suffers is next—a recognition of our shared humanity. Feeling for another person’s feelings is where empathy comes in.

Next is tolerating those feelings, where empathy gets tricky, but we will look at it later. Finally, there is compassion for the motivation to act and relieve that person’s pain.

That is what compassion does. It challenges our assumptions, our sense of self-limitation, worthlessness, of not having a place in the world. As we develop compassion, our hearts open.

Sharon Salzberg

Opposite of Compassion

Now that you know what compassion is, it is also helpful for you to see the opposite of this trait. Below is a list of the antonyms for compassion:

  • indifference
  • insensitivity
  • coldness
  • hard-heartedness
  • mercilessness
  • unconcern
  • inhumanity
  • heartlessness
  • coldheartedness
  • callousness
  • inhumanness
  • pitilessness
  • meanness
  • detachment
  • emotionlessness

The Problem with Empathy

Empathy is a wonderful trait to possess. By feeling and attuning to other people’s feelings and emotions, we can better understand them and experience a sense of shared humanity. However, it is possible to misplace your empathy. This powerful feeling can sometimes be overwhelming and ultimately backfire.

Earlier, we mentioned how empathy gets tricky when trying to tolerate complicated feelings for the sake of helping others. This can be dangerous because there may be times when we cannot help someone through empathy alone. For example, the partner of a person struggling with a substance use disorder might tolerate their partner’s addiction because they know that their partner will feel bad if they force their partner to stop using such a substance. So, instead of helping, they let their partner continue their undesirable behavior toward compulsive or regular substance use.

compassion vs empathy, empathetic person

The Role of Compassion

When merely having empathy does not help, compassion is the next approach. Using our earlier example of someone with substance addiction and their concerned partner, the partner might follow their empathy into enabling the person’s addiction. They do not want them to suffer, so they behave in ways allowing that person to continue using a substance.

Compassion would lead the partner into realizing that he or she can help their suffering loved one, but indirectly. Compassionate action in this sense would be discontinuing substance addiction, such as refusing to financially support their addiction or setting boundaries around how much time they can now share.

Research on Compassion

Recent research points to the potential evolutionary role of compassion: to facilitate cooperation and protection of the weak and those who suffer. Cooperation is one of the primary reasons we are still here today and sits at the top of the food chain. The human capacity for efficient cooperation outrivals that of any other animal.

Compassion drives us to help those who are suffering, not just because we feel for their pain but also because if other members of a community can thrive, the community as a whole has a greater chance of success and thriving. A prehistoric tribe of humans might not have survived as long as the others if they did not help each other out when in need. Compassionate leadership has helped us survive. 

Can You Be Too Compassionate?

You might not think that one can be too compassionate, but it is possible. If you feel empathy for another person’s suffering, such as someone you love, and compassion drives you to help them, you may go too far. Your effort to help them, especially if they are someone close to your heart, might lead to you prioritizing their wants and needs above your own.

That is why it is just as, if not more, important to practice self-compassion. It includes recognizing your feelings, which might be overwhelming and stressful. It is about accepting your negative emotions as well as your positive emotions. A crucial part of practicing compassion is knowing when to set boundaries and understanding that you cannot fix everything for another person. 

The Benefits of Practicing Compassion

Research proves that practicing compassion offers myriad benefits, not just for those you help but for you as well. Compassionate action has increased our sense of meaning and purpose in life. Another study highlights how those on the receiving end of compassion are more likely to act that way toward others.

In a 2008 study led by psychologist Barbara Fredrickson, participants engaged in a nine-week loving-kindness mediation, a form of compassion training that investigated whether or not cultivating positive emotions could lead to more positive life experiences. The results of the study found that training to become a more compassionate person through loving-kindness meditation led to:

  • Increased life satisfaction
  • More frequent positive emotions
  • Reduced depressive symptoms
  • Healthier social connections
  • Improved overall psychological well-being

Fredrickson’s study shows that compassion plays a massive role in happiness. Though happiness is temporary, just like every other emotion, we can cultivate more of it in our daily lives through compassionate action.

compassion versus empathy

How to Practice Compassion

1. Practice Self-Compassion First

Self-compassion is what allows you to safely practice compassion toward others in a way that prevents emotional burnout and helps you stay healthy and grounded. Cultivating self-compassion helps you offer compassion to others in the same way that having a full cup lets you pour into others. Having an empty cup or a lack of self-compassion prevents you from truly being able to help someone else. Without the ability to safely practice compassion due to a lack of compassion for ourselves, our empathetic feelings have nowhere to go and feel overwhelming.

If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.

Dalai Lama XIV

2. Tune into Empathy

If you are not naturally empathetic, you can boost your sense of empathy by simply imagining what it must be like to walk in another person’s shoes. Put yourself in their position and consider how things might be difficult. Remember that even when people act happy and assured on the surface, there can be a storm happening within. Empathy is about tuning into difficulties even when they are not easy to see.

3. Listen

One of the most powerfully compassionate acts you can perform is to listen. Those suffering and in need of help need their stories heard more often than not. They want someone to listen to what they are going through. Sure, they may need genuine help in the form of support, such as shelter, time off work, or therapy. Still, the very act of listening sends the message to the person suffering that they are with someone ready to help and support them. Sensing the loving-kindness and presence of another person can go a long way. It may not heal everything, but it can inspire someone to take positive action in their own lives.

Conclusion

Empathy and compassion are related, but they are not the same. Compassion is empathy evolved, whereby shared suffering has a productive outlet. Without compassion, empathy can bring you down and do nothing to help those suffering. So, next time you feel another person’s suffering, consider how you can offer compassion rather than ruminating on their pain without any action.

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