When most people hear the words “compassion” or “empathy,” they probably think they are the same. They likely bunch them together with concepts like sympathy and pity as well.
These are all distinct concepts with subtle but significant differences. Pity can be harmful, depending on how and when it’s used. Sympathy and empathy sound very similar, but they have one key difference. Sympathy means you understand someone else’s feelings, while empathy means you feel someone else’s feelings yourself.
Compassion, meanwhile, is another thing entirely. It is all about taking those things and channeling them into affirmative action. Compassion is something that some people have naturally, but it is also something that everyone can work to cultivate.
Read on to learn more about each concept, the relative strengths and weaknesses of empathy and compassion, and what practices you can adopt to help develop an increased capacity for each.
Feeling for another person and sharing in their emotions is a critical trait. It helps create emotional understanding and communal bonds between people of all backgrounds. But what word do you use to describe this feeling?
Many people use compassion, empathy, sympathy, and pity almost entirely interchangeably. But they all have different meanings and vary with regards to their positive or negative connotations.
How do you know when to use which term? Let’s break them all down, starting with a simple definition of each one.
Pity is when one acknowledges the adverse situation of another. It is often accompanied by sentiment like “that’s a shame” or “that’s too bad.” It is not an inherently negative feeling but does often have a negative connotation.
It is undoubtedly better to acknowledge someone else’s suffering than it is to ignore it completely. But pity often invokes more of a cold, distant observation than sympathy, empathy, or compassion. It acknowledges the other person’s negative state but does not offer any warmth or an attempt to make them feel better.
Pity is also often accompanied by a sense of superiority, intentional or otherwise. Therefore, pity often makes the pitied party feel even worse than they did before.
As opposed to a simple observation of someone else’s suffering, sympathy is when you see someone’s negative situation and can understand it. Sympathy is, to put it simply, when you “put yourself in someone else’s shoes.”
Sympathizing with someone can often help make them feel better. Showing that you’re willing and able to imagine what it’s like to be in the other person’s situation can make them not feel so alone.
But it’s still an abstract sentiment. While you are conceptualizing the other person’s situation, you’re not feeling those feelings yourself. And depending on the mindset of the other person, trying to make them feel better solely with abstract sympathy could potentially fall flat.
Empathy takes sympathy one step forward. Where sympathy means you can understand how someone else feels, empathy means you actively feel the same feelings that the other person is experiencing. Pity and sympathy are both passive feelings, but empathy is an active process.
That means that seeing someone sad, for example, makes you feel sad as well. You do not just imagine the other person’s sadness; you experience it alongside them as well. Empathy can give the other person some form of comfort because they know they have company in what they are struggling with.
Empathy is often an automatic, visceral response. It kicks in without having to think about anything—you see someone suffering and respond immediately. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not something you can practice and develop.
One quick note—empathy doesn’t have to be for negative emotions only. If seeing someone else happy brings you happiness yourself, that is also empathy. Empathizing is feeling someone else’s feelings as if they were your own, whether those are positive or negative.
The previous three concepts are all emotions. Compassion, however, is more actionable. Where pity is the acknowledging of suffering, sympathy is the understanding, and empathy is the sharing, compassion is the desire to relieve someone of their pain.
Compassion is typically rooted in sympathy. You aren’t necessarily empathizing with the other person, but you understand their negative situation. Where sympathy leaves it at that, compassion takes an additional step. You understand their plight, and you want to do something about it.
Empathy vs. Compassion
Pity should always be elevated to one of the other concepts we’ve discussed. It does not help the experiencer or the subject, and can sometimes serve to make the other person feel even worse.
Sympathy can undoubtedly serve a purpose. When someone loses a relative, for example, you might send a sympathy card. It wasn’t your relative who passed, but you can express your sympathies to let your friend know that you know how they feel.
Overall, however, we are going to focus on empathy and compassion. First, we’ll talk about why each is valuable, how they each work, and their respective strengths and weaknesses. Then we’ll discuss what types of practices you can do to become a more empathetic, compassionate person.
Why Do Empathy and Compassion Matter?
Empathy and compassion are both inherently related to other people. Why do people feel them at all? Well, to begin with, humans are social creatures. If we attempted to live purely as individuals, we wouldn’t last very long. It’s only through cooperation and coordination that our species can thrive.
Empathy serves to connect us further. By viscerally feeling what another member of your community feels, you are able to understand them on a deeper level. By seeking to relieve their suffering, you make a deeper connection with that community member. Through empathy and compassion, cooperation and coordination are strengthened.
The Science of Feeling for Others
Empathy and compassion are both vital for communal functioning and individual health. But how exactly do they come to be? There are direct physiological and neurological explanations for each of these phenomena.
The Science of Empathy
As we’ve discussed, empathy can often happen involuntarily. We perceive emotion in others, and we automatically feel that same emotion ourselves. How can that be?
The explanation is related to a recent significant scientific discovery: mirror neurons. Mirror neurons are a distinct categorization of brain cells that “reflect” what you see in other people. Scientists first discovered mirror neurons in monkeys, noticing that specific cells fired when the monkeys performed an action and when they observed others performing that same action.
Mirror neurons have since been proven to exist in humans as well. They are incredibly well-rounded, applying to phenomena as diverse as motor skills, language, pain, and emotions. Some mirror neurons can be so active that our brains react just as if whatever happened had happened to us.
Of course, empathy is not quite this simple. Mirror neurons explain the natural, involuntary aspect, and are more prominent in some people than others. But real empathy takes conscious effort as well. What “sadness” feels like to me could be different from the way it is manifesting in others. So to be genuinely empathetic, you’ll have to work to understand a person’s perspective beyond the surface level.
The Science of Compassion
There is no single neurological phenomenon that explains compassion the way mirror neurons explain empathy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a connection between compassion and the way our brains are wired.
Compassion is meant to be our natural, default state. As we discussed, humans are social beings, and our brains have developed to promote cooperation and community. However, excess stress makes it more difficult to feel compassion.
In modern society, we experience a near-constant stream of low-level stress hormones. That is in contrast with the short bursts of intense stress separated by longer intervals, to which our brains were used to accommodating generations ago. These stress hormones can effectively rewire our brain so that our natural response to seeing someone suffering changes from compassion to judgment.
Conversely, actively practicing compassion can affect the way our bodies respond to stress. It can make us more relaxed and adjust our brain chemistry so that stress hormones aren’t released as consistently. We’ll have much more on this later. Either way, compassion and stress are inextricably linked in an inverse physiological relationship.
Relative Benefits of Empathy vs. Compassion
We know now that, while often used interchangeably, empathy and compassion are entirely distinct concepts. But which one is better?
Naturally, there is no single answer to that question. Like much in life, it just isn’t that simple. But there are some distinct strengths and weaknesses of each concept and situations where one is going to be more appropriate than the other.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Empathy
As we’ve discussed, empathy is the ability to see another person experiencing something, and to then directly feel it yourself. It is caused in part by naturally occurring mirror neurons, and in part by conscious effort. Empathy is indeed a virtuous trait, and it does have plenty of strengths associated with it. But in certain situations, it can have some drawbacks as well.
First, let’s look at the benefits. Empathy is a powerful tool for building a community. Compassion can help strengthen communal bonds, but empathy is excellent for establishing those bonds in the first place. When you experience what someone else experiences, that allows you to connect with them on a deeper level.
Empathy also is vital in allowing people to understand that others are also fully realized human beings. When you see someone stub their toe, and you instinctively wince, that helps you know that the other person is feeling pain, likewise when you share their pain and their joy.
However, empathy can have downsides. When you see someone suffering, and you feel their pain too deeply, that can be debilitating. Instead of being in a position to lift the other person up, now there are just two of you suffering. You haven’t helped the other person, and you’ve hurt your emotional well-being. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t empathize with others; it’s a precious trait. But empathy in excess can be harmful.
The Virtues of Compassion
Compassion is when you sense someone’s suffering, and rather than feeling it directly yourself, you have a desire to help them. Where too much empathy can lead to a person being overwhelmed, compassion is always actionable.
When we empathize too deeply with the suffering of others, that leaves us in a position where we are unable to help the other person. By instead taking a compassionate approach, you are able to preserve your emotional energy, and take steps to relieve their suffering.
Research has indicated that empathic suffering can actually be actively harmful to all parties involved. Witnessing suffering through an empathetic lens can be a primary cause of emotional distress and burnout and can actually reduce rather than increase the desire to help.
The study first trained a group of people on empathic techniques, and then later on practices designed to promote compassion. After each training, they showed the group videos depicting human suffering.
After the empathy training, the group reported adverse effects, and neural imaging indicated that the most active parts of their brains were the ones responsible for pain and emotional distress. But the compassion training actively reversed this emotional burnout and augmented positive responses.
Empathy without compassion is unnecessary additional suffering. But when you are compassionate, that gives that suffering a way to be channeled positively and productively. It helps the other person, and it helps prevent your emotional battery from burning out.
We touched on this briefly earlier, but compassion and stress are inversely linked with one another. The constant barrage of small-scale pressure to which we are subjected in modern society reduces our brain’s innate tendency to feel compassion towards others.
But actively practicing compassion can have the opposite effect. If you make a conscious choice to be compassionate in your day to day life, this can reverse the effects of compassion fatigue, and rewire your brain in a way that restores this natural default and reduces stress.
Where it may seem on the surface that peace is the opposite of stress, peace is a passive state. As opposed to merely seeking the absence of stress, actively pursuing kindness and compassion produces dynamic, opposite effects on our mental state. And that is true of our physical body as well:
Promoting Immune Health
Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked, and many people don’t realize quite the extent to which this is true. Compassion is excellent for your mental health and has, in turn, been demonstrated to have substantial, tangible benefits to your one’s physical health as well.
Compassion meditation is just what it sounds like—a meditative practice designed to promote a compassionate view of the world and other people. We’ll have more on this later. Studies have indicated, though, that compassion meditation contributes to improved immune health results.
The physiological link between compassion and stress is similar to the psychological one. The more the subjects trained in compassion, the more significant reduction of stress hormones when they took a laboratory stress test.
When you practice compassion, your mindset gets healthier, and your body follows suit.
Tips for Avoiding Empathic Overwhelm
Empathy is a precious trait when properly channeled. In other situations, however, it can be crippling. To ensure that your empathy is always productive, and doesn’t deplete your emotional battery, here are a few essential tips you can follow:
Focus on the Other Person
Empathy is inherently about other people, as we’ve discussed. However, it can be possible to be selfishly empathic. While this is counterintuitive, if you focus too intently on your own experience of their feelings, you can lose sight of the reason for your empathy in the first place.
Selfish empathy is generally not intentionally selfish—you’re simply feeling too much, and you happen to focus primarily on the way you’re being affected yourself. But regardless of motivation, selfish empathy is wholly unproductive.
To avoid getting worn out emotionally, take a step back and remember what this is all about. It’s not about you; you are empathizing with the other person to help them out of their negative situation. When you start to feel overwhelmed, remind yourself of this.
Take Deep Breaths
Of course, the above may be easier said than done. If you are overwhelmed, it’s not always easy to just choose to change your mindset, and have that be successful. However, if you’re able to control your breathing, it becomes much more manageable to control the rest of your mindset.
Overwhelm is a stress response. By controlling your breathing, you are able to manage your nervous system, reduce stress, and activate a relaxation response instead. Once you’ve beaten that first wave of pressure, you’ll have a much easier time controlling your focus.
Explore Your Initial Reaction
Empathy is often intuitive. You don’t think about it, or even choose to be empathetic. You just automatically experience the other person’s feelings. These automatic reactions are often driven by mirror neurons. That means the other person’s feelings are filtered through your own lens.
While this is still empathy, it’s inherently your version of the other person’s feelings. Emotions, and the way you process them, are unique to each individual, and dependent on context. Therefore, in order to make sure your empathy is productive, examine this initial reaction. Try to frame the empathic emotion you’re feeling through the other person’s perspective.
That practice shifts your focus to the other person. As we discussed above, this will keep your attention away from yourself, which should prevent you from being hindered by the negative emotions.
Tips for Fostering Compassion
Empathy and compassion are both valuable traits. But empathy without compassion can be a detriment to all involved. Where pure empathic suffering increases pain and reduces the willingness to take action, compassionate people stay focused on finding a solution and relieving the plight of the other person.
But as we’ve discussed, compassion can be ever more challenging to practice in the modern world. Our brains are designed for a fight or flight response—short, intense bursts of stress that arise only in critical situations, and are typically few and far between.
But this is no longer our reality. While the levels of stress we typically experience are now much lower, it is also near omnipresent. That change is affecting our brains in several ways, not least of which is regarding our ability to feel compassion. Where once it was the human brain’s default state, we now too often default to judgment instead.
Just because something is our default, however, does not mean we need to submit to it. Compassion is a trait that we can develop with practice and effort—and the benefits are more than worthwhile. Here are some tips to help you get started.
Be Compassionate Towards Yourself
Compassion is typically aimed out toward others. It’s all about observing the suffering of other people and doing what you can to relieve that suffering. But one of the best ways to practice compassion towards others is to focus first on being compassionate towards yourself.
Negative self-talk and judgment are prime causes of stress. We seize on our struggles, and instead of being compassionate, we belittle ourselves and increase our suffering. But we deserve compassion too. Too often, we deny ourselves compassion before we even have the opportunity to receive it from anyone else.
If you are going to cultivate compassion towards others, you need to first begin with yourself. The first step is to be observant. Notice when you are suffering, and when you are judgemental towards yourself. When you observe this, stop and breathe. Controlling your breathing will help you break the cycle of automatic judgment.
From here, think about how you would console a friend in a similar situation. Would you tell your friend that they are worthless because of their struggles? Or would you tell them that failing is a natural part of life and that no one is perfect? Allow yourself to feel your feelings, but don’t blow them out of proportion.
One reason that people are often under states of constant stress is that they aren’t present in the current moment. We fixate on mistakes we’ve made in the past and worry about significant events we have coming up in the future, neither of which are things we can control in the present moment.
All we can control is the here and now. When we lose sight of this fact, all that we are left with is stress with no outlet. That is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness, in its broadest sense, is the practice of focusing one’s awareness of the present moment and calmly observing and accepting your current emotional state.
Mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, thereby priming you to feel compassionate towards yourself and others. But mindfulness also allows you to be more aware of those around you, and how they are feeling.
The benefits of mindfulness with regards to compassion are, therefore, twofold. You are able to identify those around you who are in need of compassion. And you are in a more stress-free mindset, which makes you more capable of compassionate actions.
If you’re truly serious about cultivating your compassion as much as possible, one structured exercise that could help considerably is compassion meditation. It is a progressive exercise designed to start with something manageable (compassion for a loved one, something which even the most jaded among us are capable of) and build from there.
The goal is to focus your awareness on a specific individual and wish them happiness. You first begin with a loved one, then yourself, then a neutral person. From there, you’ll move on to a person you actively dislike. These will be progressively more difficult and may require continuous practice to master.
If you can reach a state of compassion towards someone you once disliked, though, then compassion towards the rest of the world will be much easier. Compassion meditation is all about actively training your mind to reframe your perception of the word, so that compassion once more becomes your default state.
The Final Word
Empathy and compassion are two related but distinct concepts. Empathy refers to the ability to perceive and directly experience another person’s feelings. Compassion is when you see someone in a negative situation, and want to relieve their suffering.
Empathy is very valuable and does have its strengths. It is vital, for example, to build communal bonds between different people. However, if you empathize with someone’s suffering too deeply, this can lead to you become overwhelmed with emotion and unable to help the other person or yourself.
Compassion, on the other hand, is always a positive force. Helping others in difficult situations is a significant good thing in and of itself. But it also has significant benefits for the person practicing compassion. It can lead to reductions in stress and the promotion of immune health, among other things.
Compassion is also a learnable skill. If it doesn’t come naturally to you, that’s not your fault. The constant stress of the modern world has rewired our brains so that compassion is no longer the default. But with conscious effort and practice, compassion can become second nature to you once again.