What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

(Following up on a comment on the last post.)
Empathy is inherent to brain development. From a very young age most of us are able to pick up on the emotional states of others. This ability is a benefit to the development of relationships, but it can also be problematic if a child is surrounded by significant distress.


Image by James Chan from Pixabay

With empathy we can relate to another’s experience, but empathy alone doesn’t activate the desire to help. In fact empathy can be used to manipulate people. As an example, in my long-ago advertising career, the more empathetic I became to the ‘target audience’, the people who might use my clients’ products, the more able I was to create ads that addressed their concerns. The ‘better’ I did, the worse I felt! I wrote an eight-page treatise on the evils of advertising, and then I quit.

It’s easy to see how unscrupulous politicians use empathy to shape their rallying cries to fuel the fears of their followers. It doesn’t matter whether the fear is based in reality to be effective.

Empathy is relatively neutral but endows great power. Buddhism is concerned with what we do with that power. It is not enough to understand how someone feels. What do you do with that understanding? Do you manipulate their minds to your own greedy ends? Or might you cultivate compassion for the benefit of all life?

In order to cultivate compassion, we can’t begin with other people’s feelings. We have to begin with our own. This may sound selfish, but we are refining our ability to give. Without compassion for ourselves, our intentions will be unwise and our actions unskillful. The regular practice of mindfulness helps us see the fear that sparks the unskillfulness. Self-compassion doesn’t offer an excuse for bad behavior. Instead, it heals us by reminding us of our intrinsic belonging to the family of beings, so that our intentions are loving and our actions are wise.

Compassion stems from the practice of infinite lovingkindness. We say blessings like: May I be well. May I be at ease. May I be peaceful. May I be happy.

When we feel loving kindness for ourselves and understand that it is infinite in nature, then we can share it out of the undepletable fullness of lovingkindness. So we extend our blessings to include family, friends, community members, people we have difficulty with, and ultimately all beings. As we allow it to fill us, it overflows. We become conduits for it and can send it out in all directions, without exceptions, shining its radiant light into even the darkest places. How empowering is that! Instead of giving ourselves away, the metta fills and supports us, so that we are able to be loving and compassionate.

Without compassion, the empathetic person is often uncomfortable because they are reminded of painful experience of their own. And in order to make themselves more comfortable they either tell their story or spout platitudes that help them get past their own discomfort. A good place for skillful empathy is in a support group with the specific purpose of being with others who are going through similar experiences, are ready to discuss and feel the permission to face their emotions fully.

Compassion does not rely on having a shared experience. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t walked in your shoes or know firsthand what you are going through. We are both living beings, deeply connected in ways beyond measure.

My husband can attest that I have spent lots of time carefully ushering spiders safely outside, and more recently I have been experimenting with syncing my mind with flies saying, “If you go by the door right now I will let you out (to save you from the guy with the flyswatter)” and often the fly will go by the door and wait, then fly out when I open the door. Wow!

To my knowledge I have never been a spider or a fly. I do not know what that experience is like. But I don’t want them to suffer. I want for them what I want for all beings: a joyful life.

Now as I tell this story on myself, I can also think of all the ways that my compassion is stunted, limited, blinded. It is fairly simple to usher an insect out into the world, and it is in perfect harmony with my wish to not have them inside the house creating cobwebs and multiplying.

But let’s talk about the man on the street corner with a cardboard sign that says ‘Anything helps. God bless.’ Dealing purely with empathy, one might react generously or look away out of discomfort.

There is no easy answer to the ‘right’ thing to do. The quandary of anyone being in that situation in a world of so many resources is a stumbling block for me. But my lovingkindness practice kicks in and enables me to at least look at him and mentally send him every good blessing. May you be well.

The man on the corner might say, ‘Well, now isn’t that nice, but you can’t eat blessings. How about a $20? That would go a lot further.’ And it’s true that $20 would mean a lot more to him than it means to me at this point in my life. Yet I can still remember the anguish of a lost $20 fifty years ago. I still remember the exact spot I lost it, outside the veterinarian’s office in Fairfax. So there’s that bit of empathy kicking in. But, hey, don’t underestimate the power of lovingkindness to provide something palpable: Perhaps an energetic emotional shift from a sense of being seen.

When I ponder how to have a practical beneficial impact on this person’s life, I am inclined to give money to one of the many excellent services that might help him build a sustainable life, find healthcare, housing and maybe even happiness. I may give a dollar here and there, for the pleasure of giving, but I don’t pretend it’s making a difference in someone’s life. Unless in that exchange, I also offer respect, acknowledging their perfect right to be here on the planet just as they are with all they are going through.

People can become a bit addicted to finding empathetic connections and building relationships on them. People bond over shared experiences all the time, often with very positive results; and sometimes the reverse, as when people bond over and reinforce detrimental behaviors. Compassion is not actively looking for connections and seeking cues. It is being fully receptive, providing a safe space for the other person to say whatever they feel. The sense of connection is preexisting in compassion, the understanding that all life is deeply connected.

While there may be some comfort in being with other people who are  experiencing something similar to what we are experiencing, it becomes clear quickly that their experience is not our experience, and the way they process experience is different from ours, each based on personalities, tendencies, and all the other situations in our lives and our feelings about them that come into play.

One of my students coined a phrase on the spot in class this week: ‘arrogant empathy’ — assuming that similar experiences bring accurate understanding of what another person is going through. Since she immediately used the new term to beat herself up for her own perceived ‘arrogant empathy’, we’ll let that phrase, however accurate, go. Who needs more ways to beat ourselves up? Still, pretty clever.

Empathy is situational while compassion is universal, making no assumptions.
Compassion understands that all beings suffer in some way. Being alive is a challenge for every creature, whether it’s a butterfly that flies thousands of mile, a polar bear in search of prey, or being prey for a bear. None of us floats through life in a state of pure bliss. If we do, we are likely in a state of delusion. This motley experience full of joy and sorrow is the nature of being incarnate!

With all those joys and sorrows, empathy can help in certain identifiable situations, but in other it can’t get a foothold. Compassion holds the whole world in an open loving embrace.

Empathy sees divisions, compassion sees the whole of being.
Studies show that people of all backgrounds and ethnicity have a harder time feeling empathy for someone with different skin color or features, speaks differently or has a different cultural background. Again, compassion makes no such distinctions. It is the deep understanding of the interconnection of all life, how there is no ‘other’.

WIth compassion for ourselves and all beings, we can hold the challenges of others in a loving way without losing ourselves in them. We don’t have to bring out every miserable moment of our own lives to be all matchy-matchy. Instead we tap into the deepest resource we have and offer it up in whatever way is of benefit in that moment. That’s compassion.

4 thoughts on “What’s the difference between empathy and compassion?

  1. Indi Young

    Thoughtful. Compassion truly is the action or the intent to do something positive. Empathy is just gathering data. in fact there are many kinds of empathy, of which the common definition is emotional contagion. Feeling what another person feels. Affective empathy is defined exactly how you defined compassion in your last post. Cognitive empathy is just data gathering a very deep level. I’ll bet cognitive empathy is what you developed back in your advertising days. These days there is a term for the negative use of empathy. It is called dark patterns. There are is a following of people who talk about behavioral economics. Often those are dark patterns however a good practitioner told me she has been using it for a lot of really positive health services and apps. So there are bright patterns, as well, that can come out of the data, the knowledge of cognitive empathy.

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  2. Stephanie Noble Post author

    Hi Indi, Thanks for commenting again since clearly this whole post was a reply to your comment on the last post! 😉 I love that term ‘dark patterns’, though none of our clients in my advertising days were doing anything negative. We would never have taken them on if so. They were all providing valuable services or good products. But the advertising itself, and the use of psychology to tell people that they need these things, was what got to me. Just putting people in a state of thinking they need the next amazing thing to be ‘enough’ is using a subtle form of fear. I understand the need for letting people know the product is available. I just didn’t want my life’s work to be finding ways to convince them they wouldn’t be complete or completely happy without it!

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  3. Pingback: compassion is a type of empathy – indi young

  4. Stephanie Noble Post author

    People with no empathy are dangerous! Let’s not get so caught up in semantics that we lose sight of the shared intention to be present for ourselves and each other in deep and caring ways. Whatever we call it! Thanks for linking my post into your discussion, Indi.

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