Compassion vs empathy: Know the difference and why they matter

Compassion and empathy are often used interchangeably because there are similarities that are hard to ignore. They both involve a deep awareness of another person’s emotional state. But there are several key distinctions between empathy and compassion. While empathy is feeling the pain of another person, compassion is doing something to relieve their suffering. The two also have an impact on a person’s mental health. Read on to know the differences between compassion and empathy.

What is compassion?

Compassion is a profound emotional response that involves recognising the suffering of others and feeling motivated to help alleviate that suffering. It goes beyond merely acknowledging someone else’s pain and includes a strong desire to take action to relieve that distress, says psychologist Neha Dutt.

A woman being compassionate
Compassion goes beyond merely acknowledging someone else’s pain. Image Courtesy: Freepik.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a person’s ability to understand and share another individual’s feelings. It is about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and experiencing all kinds of emotions as if they were your own. Empathy can be divided into:

  • Cognitive empathy (understanding another’s thoughts and feelings)
  • Emotional empathy (feeling what another person feels)
  • Compassionate empathy (a combination of understanding and feeling with an inclination to help).

What are the differences between compassion and empathy?

Compassion and empathy are similar. They both require a level of emotional intelligence and sensitivity to recognise and relate to the experiences of others. Also, both compassion and empathy can foster strong interpersonal connections and enhance social bonds, as they involve genuine concern for others’ well-being. But there are differences as well.

1. Emotional and behavioral component

Empathy is primarily an emotional experience, and involves sharing and understanding the emotions of another person. This emotional connection does not necessarily lead to action. Compassion involves both emotional and behavioral components. It starts with empathy, but goes further by including a desire to take action to relieve the suffering.

2. Focus and orientation

Empathy is about experiencing and understanding the emotional state of another person. It can sometimes lead to emotional exhaustion if one takes on the pain of others without acting on it. Compassion is action-oriented, so even if it includes empathy, it is primarily focused on alleviating suffering. This proactive nature often mitigates feelings of helplessness, says Dutt.

3. Impact on mental health

Empathy can sometimes result in what is known as “empathic distress”, where the empathiser becomes extremely overwhelmed by the negative emotions they absorb from others. Compassion tends to have a more positive impact on mental health because it includes a coping mechanism through actionable steps to address the distress, leading to compassion satisfaction. Acts of compassion release oxytocin, sometimes called the “love hormone”, which can enhance mood and satisfaction, says the expert.

A woman holding an elderly's man's hand due to compassion
Empathy and compassion have an impact on your mental health. Image courtesy: Pexels

4. Scope of experience

Empathy can occur without any direct interaction. It can be purely an internal emotional process where one person feels another’s emotions. Compassion often requires interaction or a deliberate consideration of someone’s situation to take the necessary actions to alleviate their suffering.

5. Professional application

Empathy is essential in roles that require deep understanding of others, such as therapy, counseling, and customer service. It helps professionals connect and understand the needs and feelings of those they serve. Compassion is crucial in caregiving professions like nursing, medicine, and social work, where understanding is coupled with tangible actions to help.

Is compassion better than empathy?

Deciding whether compassion or empathy is better depends on the context and the goals of the interaction. However, compassion is generally considered to be more beneficial because it not only involves understanding and sharing in another’s emotional state, but also includes a drive to alleviate the suffering.

A study was done to investigate advanced cancer patients’ understandings, and preferences of compassion and empathy. The 2017 study published in the Palliative Medicine journal showed that most of the patients preferred compassion due to its action-oriented nature.

This action-oriented nature of compassion can prevent emotional burnout and lead to more constructive outcomes for both the sufferer and the person providing support, says the expert. Compassion’s proactive stance can be particularly powerful in creating positive change and fostering resilience in both personal and professional relationships.

Compassion and empathy are good, but don’t always prioritise other people’s needs. If you do so, you might neglect your own well-being, leading to physical and emotional exhaustion.

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