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Compassion vs empathy: Why the difference matters so much

live longer and improve mental health by understanding compassion vs empathy

“Empathy” seems like the buzzword of the 21st century. But we’d be remiss to leave out its more action-oriented cousin: compassion. The compassion vs empathy debate is worth getting into because, while both skills are valuable, the former is what actually moves us to help those in need.

Table of contents
What is compassion?
What is empathy?
Compassion vs. empathy: What’s the difference?
Compassion vs empathy: Why does the difference matter?
6 scientifically-proven benefits of compassion and empathy
How to become more empathetic and compassionate
Compassion vs empathy: Both have something valuable to offer

What is compassion?

The American Psychological Association defines compassion as "a strong feeling of sympathy with another person’s feelings of sorrow or distress, usually involving a desire to help or comfort that person."

What is empathy?

According to the APA, empathy is "understanding a person from his or her frame of reference rather than one’s own, or vicariously experiencing that person’s feelings, perceptions, and thoughts. Empathy does not, of itself, entail motivation to be of assistance, although it may turn into sympathy or personal distress, which may result in action."

Compassion vs. empathy: What’s the difference?

The main difference between compassion vs empathy is that compassion involves a desire to help while empathy does not necessarily involve a desire to help.

Where empathy enables you to feel another’s pain, it can be debilitating if you remain stuck there. Compassion, however, moves you to do something to relieve another’s pain—making it a more empowering emotion.

Because of this, there has been a push in the psychology and neuroscience field to encourage people to move from empathy to compassion.

In an interview with the Association of American Medical Colleges, compassion researcher Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D., said: “We need to transform empathy to compassion. People talk about compassion fatigue. That’s an unfortunate misnomer. If you’re really experiencing compassion, it’s not fatiguing; it’s nourishing.”

Compassion does not require empathy. However, empathy can be a powerful springboard into compassion. In other words, when you can understand another’s perspective and feelings (empathy), that in and of itself may motivate you to then alleviate their suffering (compassion).

Compassion vs empathy: Why does the difference matter?

In recent years, the term “compassion fatigue” has become increasingly popular, often used to describe those in helping professions (such as social work or healthcare) becoming exhausted by seeing others suffer and taking on their emotional burden.

The reason the compassion vs empathy debate is so important is that neuroscientists are now saying that, based on their research, compassion does not cause fatigue.

Instead, they’re pushing for the term “empathic distress fatigue” because what is causing the fatigue is actually empathy-in other words, the act of feeling what someone else is feeling.

When you get stuck there, naturally, you become drained because it’s hard for anyone to feel suffering for so long. The treatment for empathic distress fatigue is compassion training. This research is published in the journal Collegian.

6 scientifically-proven benefits of compassion and empathy

Below are just some benefits of compassion and empathy as found in scientific research.

  • Merely thinking compassionate thoughts light up your brain’s reward center. Using fMRIs, researchers have been able to see that when a person thinks compassionate thoughts, the areas in the brain associated with reward or pleasure activate. [1]
  • When you show compassion, others are more likely to see you as a leader. Researchers found that people's perceptions of someone's leadership grew when they saw that person show concern and intent to help. [2]
  • Compassionate people live longer. A University of Michigan study found that volunteers tend to live longer than non-volunteers-but only if they are volunteering for other-oriented reasons, including feeling compassion for people in need. [3] Another study found that people who occasionally served as a caregiver for another had a lower risk of dying early. [4]
  • Being treated with empathy and compassion speeds up recovery. When patients perceive their clinician as empathetic, the patients' severity and length of a cold decrease. [5]
  • Self-compassion boosts your immune system. A meta-analysis of 94 peer-reviewed articles concluded that self-compassion has a strong positive effect on overall physical health, including the immune system. [6]
  • Compassion toward others and yourself is good for your mental health. A five-year study of more than 1,000 adults found that increasing the levels of one’s compassion toward others and one’s self improved mental health.[7]

How to become more empathetic and compassionate

Given the multitude of mental and physical health benefits that both empathy and compassion bring about, it makes sense that one would want to increase capacity for both. Below are 18 evidence-based ways to do just that.

1. Begin by considering people other than yourself

A basic prerequisite for empathy is being able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. So many of us are self-interested, just doing what we can to survive or get ahead. But if you want to practice empathy, the first step is to step outside yourself.

This takes practice, and that’s okay! View empathy and compassion as muscles that you’re working on building. Some ideas:

  • For every desire you have, think about someone else. For instance, when your stomach is rumbling, and you think, “I want to eat lunch,” think of someone else. Has your roommate had lunch yet? Perhaps you could ask them to join you?
  • Get intentional about nurturing others. For example, add events to your calendar that remind you to check in on the people you care about. If a friend tells you they’re nervous about a job interview next week, add it to your calendar. That way, that morning, you can send them a text letting them know you’re thinking about them and that you believe they’ll do a great job.
  • Instead of assuming, ask. A lot of the time, when we disagree with someone, we make an assumption, such as, “Oh, they’re just ignorant.” Instead of assuming you know what someone thinks or feels, ask them. This will help you practice perspective-taking, an important component of empathy, which we’ll talk about more in the next tip.

2. Practice taking on someone else’s perspective

While there’s emotional empathy (where you feel what someone else feels), you can’t always rely on that, as emotions are fleeting. Instead, employ cognitive empathy. This is a thought exercise where you try to take on someone else’s perspective. The next time someone has an opposing view, or the next time someone does something you can’t understand, pause, reflect, and imagine. Imagine you’re in their shoes and think of alternate explanations for their beliefs or behaviors. Of course, if you can, it also helps to ask them to share their perspective.

Practice doing this, and it will eventually become a habit. That way, instead of feeling angry that someone disagrees with you, you can come to an understanding and see them as a human with their own experiences and resulting perspectives. This will help you become a more empathetic person.

3. Develop emotional intelligence so you can identify when someone is in distress

To feel compassion, you must first be able to recognize that someone else is feeling sorrow or distress. Being able to identify emotions is a component of emotional intelligence (or EQ)-and yes, it is a skill you can build!

Our online coaching program Increase EQ uses evidence-based strategies to help you get better at reading people's emotions, understand the nuances of voice and ultimately, establish a stronger connection and rapport with others.

Plus, our AI-powered Coach Marlee will encourage you and check in with you throughout the eight-week program, ensuring you stay motivated and make progress.

Developing emotional intelligence is a strong foundation for practicing compassion.

4. Identify your values

Sometimes, feeling what someone else feels or taking someone else’s perspective is not enough to motivate us to take action to help them. When this happens, it can help to lean on our values, as everyone has an innate desire to act in accordance with their beliefs and values.

Take some time to reflect upon and write down your personal values and beliefs. For instance, your list might include, “I believe that it is my duty to help those who are less fortunate,” or, “I believe that every human being has intrinsic worth, regardless of their circumstances or resources.”

When you become clear on what you believe and value, it becomes much easier to make the decision to help. While you may not feel like helping someone in the moment (emotions come and go), you can use your intellect to call to mind that you are a person who acts in alignment with your beliefs, and this might be the motivation you need to take action.

5. Pay attention to moments when your values are not aligned with your actions

An interesting thing happens in our brains when we do not act in alignment with our beliefs and values: cognitive dissonance. It’s a fancy psychological term that equates to us feeling bad.

It’s hard for us to walk around knowing we did something we believe to be wrong. For instance, if I believe I am a person who helps those who are less fortunate, but yesterday, I ignored my friend’s text when she asked for help moving furniture, I’ll go through my day feeling bad about myself. It’s hard for me to believe I am a good and honest person if my actions do not reflect that.

Instead of wallowing in shame over these moments, however, use them as motivation. So the next time, you’ll have positive evidence that you are, in fact, a person who acts according to your beliefs. That’ll feel so good!

6. Gratitude journaling

Gratitude is linked to prosocial behaviors. Research published in Social Psychological and Personality Science found that​​ gratitude makes people less likely to try to harm others and more likely to help them.

One way to cultivate gratitude is through journaling. At the end of each day, hop into the free F4S interactive journal to write down one or two things you’re grateful for and how you played a role in those things happening.

For example, you might write, “I’m grateful that I had dinner with my friend today. It happened because I called her and invited her over.”

Seeing how you played a role in it can help you feel you do have what it takes to help others.

7. Practice self-acceptance

We must not forget about self-compassion. While being compassionate toward yourself is not a prerequisite for being compassionate toward others, it will certainly make your life easier. Remember, in the research above, we saw that self-compassion is good for your overall physical health.

But feeling compassion for yourself is tough if you haven’t yet achieved self-acceptance, which is the ability to see yourself as you are, strengths and blind spots included, and feel at peace about it, rather than berating yourself.

8. Reduce thought suppression

Everyone has thoughts that pop into their mind uninvited. Sometimes, a person labels a thought as bad and does everything they can to not think the thought. Often, this is an unhealthy way of coping with negative emotions caused by the thought. This is known as thought suppression, and it’s bad for mental health.

Further, 2021 research published in peer-reviewed journal PLOS One found that thought suppression hurts the development of self-compassion.

9. Self-awareness

Another skill you can use to increase your compassion is self-awareness. Self-awareness is realizing what you’re feeling and thinking, recognizing how your thoughts and feelings inform your behaviors and acknowledging how your behaviors influence yourself and others. While a lot of people assume they’re self-aware-most are not. Thankfully, there are many actions you can take to increase self-awareness.

One of the best things you can do to boost your self-awareness? Join our evidence-based Increase EQ program. It’s totally free and uses strategies based on scientific research to help you develop your self-awareness.

10. Reduce feelings of stress

Stress inhibits your ability to feel compassion.

In an AAMC article, Stanford University neurosurgery professor James R. Doty, MD, says, “When the amygdala is activated, we have a decrease in pathways associated with nurturing. We take shortcuts because we’re in survival mode.”

To get out of survival mode, do things that activate a relaxation response. You could call a friend, take a soothing bath, or go for a walk in nature. By better managing your stress, you can open yourself up to compassion.

11. Create a safe space for people to feel and express their emotions

One component of compassionate leadership at work is acknowledging that each and every employee is a human being with a wide range of emotions that need to be expressed. Now, that does not mean they can express those feelings in any way they like. It requires emotional intelligence on their part, which involves knowing the appropriate way to respond to and manage an emotion.

Again, participating in coaching like Increase EQ will help you and your team develop emotional intelligence so you can hold space for each other’s emotions in the workplace.

12. Write a self-compassionate letter

University of Waterloo psychology researchers Allison Kelly and Sydney Waring conducted an experiment to see if a self-compassion exercise would decrease shame and increase treatment motivation for people with anorexia nervosa.

The intervention involved writing a self-compassionate letter every day for two weeks. The results? Compared to the control group that did not write self-compassionate letters, the intervention group saw a greater boost in self-compassion and a bigger reduction in shame.

13. Put a human face to the suffering

Tapping into our shared humanity helps move us to action. So if you want to be more compassionate, try putting a face to the suffering.

For instance, maybe you want to do something to alleviate hunger in your local community, but you can’t motivate yourself to sign up to volunteer or send a donation. Instead, try looking up one profile of someone who frequents your local food bank or ask a local charity if they can tell you about an individual who has benefited from their services.

Research suggests that being able to see the plight of an individual human being is more motivating than seeing a group of people or seeing statistics when it comes to helping others.

14. Stop using dehumanizing language

One dangerous behavior that diminishes our ability to feel empathy and compassion is dehumanization. As research professor Brené Brown points out, this begins with dehumanizing language, using a non-human term to label a group of people.

So as innocuous as it may seem in the heat of the moment, refrain from describing your grumpy neighbor as a “monster” or calling your ex a “dog.”

Words matter, and dehumanizing language diminishes one’s capacity to feel empathy for another human being.

Compassion vs empathy: Both have something valuable to offer

While many have pitted compassion vs empathy against each other, the truth is that both emotions have something valuable to offer you. Empathy is often a pathway to compassion, and compassion is the catalyst that sparks change by encouraging prosocial behavior.

Both compassion and empathy are key aspects of the human experience and have the potential to alleviate suffering, making life on this planet kinder and more caring.

Grow your capacity for empathy and compassion by joining Increase EQ, a free online coaching program that helps 90% of users increase their emotional intelligence in 4-8 weeks.

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