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This post is in response to a readers question. They asked me (in an email so I’ll keep them anonymous) about the difference between empathy and compassion.

My first reaction was a surprised puzzlement, then I realised that I had treated them as meaning pretty much the same, and then I realised that this wasn’t necessarily so.

It’s taken me a while to figure out how I see empathy and compassion. I think they overlap but also have differences.

My current understanding is that empathy emphasises feeling and emotion while with compassion the emphasis is more on action. I think we could say that empathy can embrace listening but not going on a street march. Compassion I think is readily compatible with street marches and other forms of organisation too.

It seems to me that empathy is a kind of receptivity while compassion adds an element of doing. We may have empathy for someone’s situation without doing anything about it. I don’t think we could say we are compassionate and do nothing. I think compassion may be the slightly larger concept.

The overlaps that I see are to do with our feelings and motivation. Both empathy and compassion are an openness to the other person, their feelings and situation. With both empathy and compassion we are “moved” – we respond to the other person’s feelings and situation. I think empathy is more the response to the person’s feelings and emotions while compassion is more the response to their situation.

This is my current understanding. I would like to hear from you. What is your understanding of empathy and compassion? You are most welcome to comment even if (or especially if) your understanding is very different to mine. Looking forward to hearing from you.

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11 Comments to “Is There a Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?”

  1. Hey Evan, I think you’re right. Empathy doesn’t necessarily include action, and compassion does. However, according to some people, empathy involves feeling the other person’s pain, and compassion recognises it but does not necessarily “join in”. In other words, one is “I feel your pain”, and the other is “I acknowledge your pain, what can I do?”. Based on some of the emails I have received, there appears to be a misunderstanding towards the first, which is illogical if you think about it. Like if someone has burnt their hand, would you burn your hand too, before bandaging theirs, just to know what it feels like? Or would it be wiser to simply take care of yourself and treat the wound as best you can?

  2. Evan says:

    Hi Albert, the ‘feel your pain’ kind of thing I call “sympathy”. If we genuinely want to help I think it is important to not get overwhelmed by someone’s pain (no use to them or us). Thanks for your comment.

  3. Aditya says:

    Hi Evan!

    It seems to me that empathy is simply the ability to see and feel the world through another’s eyes, regardless of whether we desire to relieve their pain. Compassion, on the other hand, seems to require the latter but not the former (although it certainly helps!).


  4. Evan says:

    Well put. Thanks for your comment Aditya.

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  6. Bill says:

    “In a sense we are like small animals without any fur or sharp teeth to protect us. What protects us is not our viciousness, but rather, our humanity. It is our ability to love and be loved that makes others want to take us in and keep us warm.”

    I am currently in a relationship that has had me question this very concept of the difference between compassion and empathy. When asked, my partner can recognize the anguish that others go thorough. And yet on the other hand, she is not able to suggest even the simplest of solutions that might provide comfort for that same person. This has frustrated me to no end as I desperately need her to invest herself into action, as recognition that she understands (either for me or for others). Where we may find similar interest in hobbies, food, and…, it all becomes meaningless without that deeper connection that comes from truly understanding someone and wanting to interact at that level. I propose that this is the concept of intimacy.

    Consequently, would it not be correct to then say that the meaning of compassion is that intimate part of ourselves that we give to others when we empathize over someone else’s dilemma?


  7. Evan says:

    Thanks Bill, I thin you put that very well. Many thanks for your comment.

  8. Tadamori Yagi says:

    I found this blog when i googled the difference between empathy and compassion. I like your definition.

    The reason I googled this was because of certain individuals who really annoy me. I find they are extremely empathetic and intuitive of other’s feelings or oppinions, but they are also so self-centered and self-absorbed in their own feelings that I often begin to think violent thoughts about them. this is a half joking statement. And yes, they often claim to be empaths or empathetic to others and feeling their pain. And even act like they are nice people in doing the “right thing”. They are usually extremely charismatic and charming. And many mutual acquaintances seem to like them and think highly of them, that they are “such kind and strong people with such highly attuned sensitivities.” But I am flabbergasted because all I see is someone who is super-self-centered and always puts their feelings before or above the situations of others and who can only relate to others’ experiences in terms of how the person makes them feel.

    Now I am not saying I am some saint. I definitely have my selfish moments. And there are people who I find are truly empathetic and still are able to manage varying degrees of compassion as well in such a way as not to be completely annoying to me. but gosh. I know plenty of aspergers who have more compassion and ability to connect with others than these particular “empaths”. This leads me to the opinion: Empathy without Compassion is really a form of narcissism and utterly useless except in its ability to frustrate and confound those who seek genuine human understanding and connectivity. My words sound kinda harsh and critical I suppose. But I find it annoying that what is blatantly obvious to me is so undetected in the seeming majority of those around me. Does anyone reading this rant understand exactly what I am getting at here…?

  9. Evan says:

    Hi Tadamori, I agree that it is compassion that is important.

    What may be happening for the empaths who are narcissists is that they get scared. The connection happens without their intention, they get scared and retreat into their own feeling world because of the strength of feeling from others. What do you think?

  10. Fiza says:

    Hi Evan,
    Thank you for writing this article. It helps me a lot in understanding empathy and compassion. I enjoy reading this 🙂

  11. Evan says:

    Hi Fiza, glad it helped. Thanks for letting me know that it helped.

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