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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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