What are the differences between compassion vs. empathy? What are the similarities?
Quite often, compassion and empathy are used interchangeably. However, that’s a disservice to both words. Their definitions may seem similar, but they are not the same.
In this article, we’ll get into details about the difference between compassion versus empathy, and how you increase your emotional intelligence with these two emotions.
What Is Compassion?
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.— Dalai Lama XIV, The Art of Happiness
Compassion typically comes up when you see another person suffering. This emotion happens when you respond emotionally to another person’s plight with the desire to help.
According to researchers, compassion is made up of five key elements:
- Recognizing another’s suffering
- Understanding that everyone suffers
- Having feelings for another’s suffering
- Dealing with uncomfortable feelings
- Feeling compelled to act or alleviate the suffering
So, people who are compassionate feel the need to impact the world around them in positive ways. It may be offering to help take care of the family, make arrangements, or hold them while they cry.
Compassionate people feel they can’t stand by and not do anything. They often feel obligated to do something.
Now, let’s get into another emotion that is quite often confused with compassion: passion.
Compassion vs. passion
Compassion and passion may rhyme, but they’re intrinsically different.
We know compassion has to do with helping other people, but passion is an intense feeling towards people, things, or activities you like or love.
These feelings of passion are generally internal. However, they’re displayed as effort and time put into the things you’re passionate about.
For example, passionate marriage and passion for a hobby are different extensions of a self-defining person or activity.
So, what’s the key difference?
Compassion compels you to dive into another person’s environment and offer help, without concern for yourself or the cost.
Passion, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily inspire you to do something for another.
The world is full of passionate people. There’s no shortage of intense feelings for work, family, and hobbies. But extending those passions outside of yourself may be a different matter.
So, can you feel both passion and compassion at the same time? The answer is yes.
Imagine being passionate about rescuing animals. Now imagine that passion leads you to volunteer your time and energy to a local rescue organization.
Having an intense feeling (passion) and the motivation to act (compassion) can be a powerful combination.
What Is Empathy?
Empathy is typically defined as being aware of someone’s emotions and trying to understand how they feel.
Empathetic people experience the feelings of those around them, whether they are human or animals. You can say that empaths are emotional sponges to their environment.
Before we get into empathy versus compassion, let’s take a quick look at the differences between empathy and sympathy.
Empathy vs. sympathy
Empathy can sometimes be confused with sympathy, but there is a difference between the two.
Both empathetic and sympathetic people care about other people’s suffering. But the similarities generally stop there. Empathetic people take it one step further.
While sympathetic people offer understanding and comfort from the outside, empathetic people understand others because they feel the experience themselves. Empaths actually experience another being’s feelings.
Sometimes viewed as overly sensitive, empathetic people don’t simply watch from the outside. They feel everything around them, sometimes to the point of overstimulation and exhaustion.
It’s not all negative, though. Empathetic people also feel the positive feelings of those around them, like happiness, excitement, and joy.
The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion
Now, let’s get to the heart of the matter: what is the difference between empathy and compassion?
Both are powerful feelings that desire an understanding of other people’s experiences. Additionally, both can bring happiness and well-being.
But there is a difference between empathy and compassion, however subtle. Empathetic feelings allow you to feel what another being feels. On the other hand, compassion includes the desire to help.
Take this empathy vs. compassion example, for instance: When you see a homeless person on the street, what’s your first instinct?
Do you put a donation in their cup or buy them a meal? Or maybe rail against the injustice of the system and move on?
One describes compassion. The other describes empathy.
What makes compassion and empathy different is the active component. Empathy is a very internal feeling versus compassion that moves outwards.
This is the difference between feeling heartbroken when you see another person crying, and giving that same person a comforting hug.
Can you feel both empathy and compassion at the same time?
Yes, you can.
Think of seeing someone living on the streets. You may have past experiences with that and seeing it affects you deeply. It may even bring you to tears to see someone brought that low.
Empathetic people feel another person’s feelings intensely. And take those feelings on as their own.
Those empathetic feelings can turn into compassion, though, when you take action. Taking the step outside of yourself to buy that person food or give them a blanket puts empathy into action.
All of a sudden, it isn’t just a feeling that you own. And you’re putting action into practice.
The Final Thought
What’s it like to be more compassionate vs empathetic?
There are easy, evidence-based exercises out there to be more empathetic or more compassionate. It just starts with practice.
And is there a “right” emotion when it comes to compassion vs empathy?
If empathy is the great connector, then compassion is the bridge between emotion and action.