Compassion vs empathy — both are necessary for the survival of the human race in various walks of life. We need to be compassionate in church, schools, government positions, and to everyone around us. However, not all knows the differences between the two concepts. Although they are similar, they both have their distinctions.
This article aims to explain the differences between compassion and empathy. Before we discuss the differences, we will delve into the in-depth definitions of both concepts and their types. We will also explore the importance of practicing compassion and how to be more compassionate and empathetic.
Related Read: Compassion Quotes.
There are various definitions of compassion. Many refer to compassion as an emotional response to experiencing another person's suffering, which drives the motivation to alleviate suffering.
Several researchers, like Darwin and Lazarus, shared their theories about compassion. Here are some of them:
From these definitions, you can deduce that compassion is an emotional response3 to other people's suffering and pain.
Empathy and compassion are closely related, with empathy being the ability to understand and appreciate another person's feelings and experiences. In 1909, Edward Titchener introduced the term empathy to the English language.
Empathy is from the German word "Einfühlung," which means feeling into. Before 1909, human beings used sympathy to refer to empathy-related emotions. Empathy allows us to appreciate another person's perspective and experiences.
Others believe empathy is an inner imitation of another person's experiences based on facial expressions and physical reactions. Empathy is the emotion you feel when your friend shares their pain and personal distress5.
Empathy is a crucial emotion among the human species because it helps relationships become successful by fostering the understanding of people's intentions, needs, and perspectives. It is often described as walking in someone else's shoes (shoes being the person's emotions).
The types of empathy are:
Cognitive empathy refers to understanding how another person feels and their thought processes. Researchers also refer to it as empathic accuracy. With cognitive empathy, someone can learn to recognize and understand another person’s emotional state to process emotions and behavioral patterns.
It requires emotional depth and a deep understanding of the differences in people’s experiences. Those who practice cognitive empathy imagine themselves in someone else’s position and wonder about their emotions and actions if they were in the same circumstances.
Emotional empathy is when you can feel the emotions of the other person. It has three aspects to it. The first is the ability to feel the same emotions as another person, while the second refers to one’s feelings of distress in response to the other’s suffering.
The third aspect of emotional empathy is feeling compassion for other people’s suffering. It is the most studied form of empathy concerning compassion in psychology. There is little to no emotional distance when listening to other people’s plight.
Both compassion and empathy are emotional reactions to a person's suffering. However, being compassionate goes beyond feeling another person's pain. Compassion understands the person's perspective and seeks ways to help them alleviate their pain.
Compassion is more of a practice- people practice compassion. On the other hand, an empathetic person only relates to and understands other people's emotions. Feeling empathy mirrors people’s negative emotions without the urge to relieve their pain.
Empathy is a natural response to hearing about somebody’s life experiences. When you feel empathy, you feel their pain, anger, and sorrows as if you lived their lives. However, empathy doesn’t make you want to improve their lives.
True compassion is all about choosing to take action that helps make someone’s life better. Here is a scenario to help you understand the key differences between compassion and empathy:
Helping a co-worker pick up their child after school because they work late hours is compassion, while empathy is simply understanding why they struggle with caring for their child adequately.
It is easy to get lost in other people's negative feelings, thus losing self-awareness and emotional stability. You embody the pain and anger caused by their personal experience, especially when you can relate to it.
Walking in another person's shoes can send your mental health into a spiral, causing you to lose your sense of self. Although compassion and empathy are similar, practicing compassion has a lower chance of disrupting your emotional well-being. It drives you to look for a positive outcome, which elicits positive emotions.
Compassion fatigue describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping people through stress and trauma. It thrives in a stressful environment, excessive waking hours, and a lack of resources.
You can experience this emotional fatigue in your quest to help someone with their problems. It is common among caregivers, medical professionals, therapists, and first responders.
This intense level of stress often puts a block on one's ability to feel empathy, leading to depression and anxiety. It also manifests as physical exhaustion.
Another crucial difference between empathy and compassion is the reason it occurs. Empathy usually happens when we relate to shared human connections and experiences.
However, you can experience compassion without understanding or relating to the person's experiences. You don't need to connect to someone's pain before choosing to help them. For instance, there's no connection between you and a lost tourist. Only your desire to help them find their way exists.
Compassion and empathy are necessary to maintain healthy relationships in various areas of life. We are a highly social species that thrives through numerous human connections, and creating a healthy relationship with one another is crucial to our survival.
To establish these connections, we must express care and concern for others around us. Being compassionate and empathetic to those around you improves your self-esteem and makes others feel better about themselves.
In the medical field, practicing compassion is essential to many patients' survival regardless of their terminal illness. Empathy and compassion is a meaningful human connection that fosters better physical and mental health.
Research suggests that practicing compassion and empathy stimulates the brain's pleasure centers. Participants received a sum of money in an experiment by Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia. Half of the participants spent the money on themselves, while the other half spent money on others.
The results showed participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who spent money on themselves4. Furthermore, researchers suspect those who practice compassion may live longer.
A study conducted by Michael Poulin at the University of Buffalo found that stress didn't predict mortality in participants who assisted other people but predicted in those who didn't practice empathy and compassion. It may reduce stress levels because of the pleasure you get from caring and being kind to your fellow human beings.
Here are other benefits of being a compassionate and empathetic person in everyday life:
Empathy and compassion require us to think beyond ourselves and consider those around us. Researchers found that depression and anxiety are often linked to a perpetual state1 of self-focus: me, myself, and I. However, your focus shifts from yourself to other people when you care and take action to help other people.
Shifting focus away from yourself by doing good for your family or friends can boost your mood. You can also gain a new perspective on what's bothering you or how to improve your mood. It's a way of learning to be better for yourself.
To feel compassion and empathy is to improve the quality of life for everyone. Social connection improves the physical, emotional, and mental quality of life. However, social connectedness works with feelings of compassion and empathy.
The absence of social connection does more harm than health problems like obesity and smoking, while a strong sense of social connection improves the quality of life2. It helps sick people recover sooner and increase their lifespan.
Adopting compassion in the workplace also improves employees’ productivity because they are in an excellent mental state. Compassionate leadership leads to an unproblematic regime. Overall, it improves mental and physical health.
Through self-compassion, you can learn how to be compassionate towards other people. Self-compassion is simply treating yourself how you would treat others. Self-compassionate people recognize when they are overwhelmed and suffering and take steps to overcome their negative emotions.
When you hold space for yourself, you'll be able to care about other people's experiences. To practice self-compassion, you should comfort your body by eating healthy. Take a walk, work out, and improve your physical health.
Practice mindfulness. It is one of the best ways to learn to love yourself adequately. Journal about your everyday life experiences, and encourage yourself with kind words.
Related read: Journal prompts to get you started.
A great way to cultivate compassion and empathy is by listening to people. Listen to people share their experiences without interrupting. While they're speaking, try putting yourself in their shoes to understand their perspectives.
It will help you understand them better. Also, feel free to ask them questions that will help improve your understanding.
Mindfulness is an excellent gateway to attaining greater self-awareness. Mindfulness meditation is a form of mental training that makes one more vulnerable to the reactive modes of the mind that cause stress, interpersonal problems, and other issues.
It helps you be more present and embrace your thoughts and emotions. Practicing mindfulness will help you be in tune with other people's thoughts and feelings. You'll notice people's pain, understand their perspectives, and help them control their situation.
In your quest to be more compassionate, remember that acts of kindness don't equal pleasing people. You don't have to go out of your way to help someone if you can’t provide it. Do not force yourself to do something you don't want to do. You can perform acts of kindness without jeopardizing yourself.
To feel compassion and empathy, do not judge people’s actions and their experiences. Do not think you could have done better in their situation. Instead, find ways to teach them valuable lessons and help them overcome their sorrows.
Empathy and compassion are necessary for the prosperity of the world. These concepts foster the growth of emotional intelligence, making you more self-aware. We cannot over-emphasize the importance of a compassionate leader in a workplace or government position.
Compassion is so crucial that there are short-term compassion training classes that help people learn how to be more compassionate. Remember that compassion requires you to be honest with yourself and to treat yourself like you’d treat someone you care about.
Brockmeyer, T., Zimmermann, J., Kulessa, D., Hautzinger, M., Bents, H., Friederich, H., Herzog, W., & Backenstraß, M. (2015). Me, myself, and I: self-referent word use as an indicator of self-focused attention in relation to depression and anxiety. Frontiers in Psychology, 6.
Holt‐Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic review. PLOS Medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
Goetz, J., Keltner, D., & Simon-Thomas, E. (2010). Compassion: An Evolutionary Analysis and Empirical Review. Psychological Bulletin.
Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687–1688.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2019). Empathy.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
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