Compassion vs. Empathy: What is the Difference?

Written on 01/22/2023
Layne McDonald. Ph.D.

Compassion vs. Empathy: What is the Difference?

Compassion and empathy are often substituted for one another, but they do not have the same meaning. Understanding means having sympathy and concern for someone else’s suffering and wanting to go alongside them on their journey. At the same time, empathy is defined more as understanding and relating to another person's feelings. 

Let us look at both:

Compassion

To have compassion for someone means to show sympathy and concern for someone or something (i.e., a pet or an endangered species). Charity is driven by wanting to change that person’s life, standing alongside them as they suffer and suffer, and holding space for them as they go through a difficult time. 

Compassion means being supportive in words, thoughts, and actions.

Words of comfort – compassion is shown in language by offering convenience. Have you ever attended a funeral and offered condolences and positive words of encouragement? That is compassion. 

Compassion in thought – mercy is also shown by offering up effective listening. Letting someone know they are in your thoughts and prayers offers support and encouragement during their difficult period. Letting someone know you are thinking of them, praying for them, and holding space to listen and be there for them is an act of compassion. 

Compassion in action – Acting steps by physically taking care of things while someone is having trouble shows mercy. For example, picking up your friend’s child from school while visiting her husband at the hospital is compassion. Caring for the home, cooking a meal, making phone calls, and helping organize paperwork are all examples of kindness. 

Empathy

Empathy for someone means you understand what they are going through – either through a relatable experience, you have previously undergone or through an ability to feel what they are going through because of your empathic superpowers.

Sharing thoughts and emotions with someone else is an example of empathy. Understanding how someone else is feeling is another. The heart uses emotional intelligence to understand, feel, or relate to someone else’s feelings. 

How to be More Compassionate

One of the best ways to become more compassionate is to start with yourself:

  • Think kinder, gentler thoughts when the inner critic tries to take over.
  • Take more compassionate actions toward yourself.
  • Tell yourself you are worthy of self-compassion and leave the guilt at the door.

Once compassion for yourself is a new habit, release that to others. Once your compassion cup is complete, you can then and only then share compassion with others.

How to be More Empathetic

If you find you are not the most empathetic person in the world and want to take on this characteristic, here are a few ways to become more compassionate:

  • Listening without judgment, without the desire to respond, and without thinking a million other thoughts is a great way to be more empathetic. 
  • Relate - try to understand what it might feel like to be that person or to have that experience. Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes goes a long way toward being more empathetic. 
  • Be Real – show up as raw and vulnerable, and you are on your way to being more empathetic. Letting your guard down allows someone else to enter. 

These are the differences between compassion and empathy and how to implement more of each throughout the day.