The difference between empathy and compassion….. and why you should know!


Published: 2 Jun 2019

Emotional well-being

One of the more challenging aspects of my work is when I get told that the world would be a better place if only more of us were empathetic – I disagree! It’s controversial, I know, and I read body language remember, so I know what some people feel about that too.

We are told all the time and read almost everyday how empathy would solve everything. Make us a better person. Make the world a better place. I disagree, and I think I’ve always disagreed. It’s a controversial stance I know. And some people are more geared up genetically towards empathy than others. But as soon as I started to learn about compassionate assertiveness when it first blipped onto the global radar in 2011, it made sense to me why I felt as I did.

I was empowered as a child, encouraged to do things for myself, see the world, reach for the stars, and I encouraged my kids to do the same with spectacular results. So empowerment rather than enablement has been the background music to my whole life. As I grew into adulthood and started to come across empathetic people who always jumped in with the right comment or offer, while I sat back or continued on with my own stuff I started to wonder what was ‘wrong’ with me.

My forte has always been in getting people to see the best in themselves right from school age. What that meant in reality was not just saying the right thing or doing the thing for them, but in inspiring and encouraging them to do it themselves, have a go, back themselves. Spurring on courage. Cheer-leading tenacity and resilience in times of trouble. Being kind, and yet without attachment to their suffering. Not being empathetic, being compassionate.

So what’s the difference?

According to US Psychologist Paul Bloom, author of Against Empathy – The case for rational compassion (the only guy who has ever written a book against empathy to my knowledge), here is the difference:

“Empathy is what happens in the brain when someone feels the same thing they believe another person is feeling.”

“It’s important to distinguish empathy from understanding. It’s even more important to distinguish empathy from compassion, warmth and kindness.”

This is a difficult one to get our head around. Paul Bloom talks in his book about something in psychology called ‘unmitigated communion’ the simple explanation for this is ‘”an excessive concern with others, and placing others needs before one’s own.” Too much ‘unmitigated communion’ is linked to physical disease, depression, and what is commonly nowadays called ‘burnout”.

The flip side of this psychology – communion,  is seen as more positive. These people are able to be helpful, aware, kind and yet able to separate themselves from the issue and remain detached where they need to. An excellent trait in the people who have to give you bad news on the worst day of your life such as doctors, firemen, policemen, lawyers. They can tell you what you need to know, but without going to pieces while you go to pieces. Communion is based from compassion. Unmitigated communion is based from empathy, or empathic distress (suffering at the suffering of others.)

Even Buddhist principles talk about the difference between empathy and compassion. “Compassion can be maintained indefinitely, whilst empathy (or ‘sentimental compassion’ in Buddhism) can be exhausting.”

Compassion does not share the suffering of others it comes from a place of motivation to improve others well-being. Even in our neural networks, empathy and compassion derive from different cortex. The way we are wired – literally  can make a difference whether we favour empathy or compassion.

So, are we better off if we are not empathetic and instead show compassion?

Here’s an excerpt from Ping Pong, Compassionate Assertiveness in Action (3rd edition).

“Understanding the difference between empathy and compassion.

I wrestled with the difference between empathy and compassion for a long time, and I realised early on in life that my views about empathy were different to quite a lot of people. Empathy is not in my every day make-up. In my mind, empathy has three dangers attached to it.

  • Firstly, it’s not always (rarely in my experience) productive. It’s ok to empathise, but what does it actually achieve?
  • Secondly, there’s a danger that it can be used for coercion. When you are in empathy mode, people often expect you to help solve their problem simply because you have empathised with them. This invariably means that you take a passive aggressive (in-direct) stance which means you may feel that you have been coerced into helping and resent it, or the person you are helping. It could also be said that you are dis-empowering them to deal with the situation and come to terms themselves if you empathise.
  • And thirdly, empathy can bring down your own personal energy field, as you buy into other peoples’ pain and suffering.

Whereas compassion, (by my definition) is positive, productive, constructive, caring, and energising – to both you and the other person. The easiest way I found to compare the two was simply this – empathy is about saying. It’s passive. It’s often on the other person’s terms. Compassion is about doing.

It’s active. It’s on your terms!

Better communication, compassionate communication, humanises us. It makes us think more objectively; pay more attention when listening, be more observant when watching others’ body language – and engage our sensible brain a split second before we speak.

Compassionate communication seeks to clarify understanding on all parts, and ensures that the interaction serves everyone it involves………not just you, and not just the other person. It builds up, invigorates, and cares enough to make suggestions, whilst reminding people of the inner strength they possess, and why you, and other people admire them. It does not ‘buy in’ to the scenario, but merely acknowledges it – all the while promoting self-analysis of their behaviour, acceptance, ability to adapt, and a new willingness to step out of the comfort zone.”

And finally, Paul Bloom argues that: “empathy causes us to overrate present costs and underrate future costs.”

In other words, we like the ‘quick fix’ of being empathetic, the buzz it gives us, but then we have to deal with the reality of what we just offered. It’s interesting to me that when you look at empathy from the viewpoint of Effective Altruism, sometimes even though people know that their time, money and energy would be better off spent elsewhere, they would still choose to help someone right in front of them because of the feeling they get from seeing that person benefit instantly (such as giving lunch and toiletries to a homeless person). Given the choice of whether to instead gift $20 to a charity where they can’t see where their $20 is going. It’s in our human nature to not only want to help, but to want to be seen to have helped. Empathy feels good.

Whichever you favour – empathy or compassion, there is no right or wrong if it feels right to you. I’d just ask you to think about this as you go into a new week though. If by being empathetic you are stopping the person achieving something on their own, figuring out a way through that will ultimately make them feel more confident and powerful – are you helping them? Ask yourself what your motivation is, and if it is genuinely to help, then try compassion instead, and help them to help themselves. This doesn’t mean you can’t be kind or thoughtful. And remember compassion can be maintained indefinitely, without burning you out. Empathy will always take something from your psyche and energy field.

Thoughts and opinions? I’m up for it. Tell me what you think.

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