Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.
Empathy is the ability to recognize and understand what another person is feeling. Compassion refers to the ability to understand what a person is experiencing combined with the desire to help reduce that person's suffering. But just how are these terms different? In order to explore the difference between compassion and empathy, let's look at an example of three friends.
Jan, Tim, and Liz have been best friends since Jan transferred to the neighborhood school in the first grade. The trio enjoys outdoor activities, so they schedule a fun outdoor group activity at least one Saturday a month. Jan had never missed a group outing, so Liz and Tim were surprised when Jan did not show up for their hike. Concerned, Liz and Tim drove to Jan's house when they found her on her porch crying. Jan informed Liz and Tim that her parents were splitting up. Both Liz and Tim listened while Jan told them about her parents fighting and how hard it was for her to not have her father around anymore. Liz and Tim told Jan how they could understand the pain and sadness that she was feeling--after all, Liz's parents were also separated. Tim's father died a few years ago and his mother never remarried, so he could relate to not having a father around. After sitting with Jan for a few hours, Liz and Tim went home. The following day, Liz began stopping by Jan's house every day to see how she was doing, brought Jan with her to a support group for teens whose parents are divorced or separated, let Jan stay the night whenever she needed a break from her parents, and accompanied Jan to court hearings. Though both Tim and Liz showed empathy, only Liz showed compassion.
Have you ever been told to put yourself in another person's shoes? If so, you were being asked to show empathy. Empathy refers to your capacity to feel what someone else is feeling. Empathy allows you to experience another's emotions and understand an experience from another's perspective. Since Liz's parents had gone through a divorce, she was able to understand the hurt and sadness that Jan was feeling. Tim was able to empathize with not having a father around because his father had died. Empathy is important because it helps foster meaningful connections between people, can help you understand the motivations behind other people's behaviors, and can help you feel like someone understands you and that you are not alone.
It is important to note that empathy is not the same thing as sympathy. Sympathy is when we worry about someone and we desire their situation to improve. We can feel sympathy even in situations where we don't feel empathy. For example, Liz could have felt sorry for Jan's pain and wanted Jan's pain to end even if Liz had no idea what it was like to have your parents divorce.
Have you ever felt the urge to help a friend who was feeling down after a bad breakup? If so, you were practicing compassion. When you can identify with another's experience and feel an urge to help that person, you are practicing compassion. Compassion can be thought of as empathy plus the desire to act. Not only did Liz understand Jan's feelings, but she also took steps to help Jan deal with her parents' divorce. By bringing Jan to a support group, attending court with Jan, and letting Jan stay at her house, Liz was actively attempting to reduce Jan's distress. It is important to note that you can feel compassion without acting on it as long as you have the urge to help reduce the person's suffering. Compassion is important because it helps you feel good about yourself, improves your social relationships, often inspires other acts of compassion, and improves society as a whole.
Empathy refers to our capacity to put ourselves in another person's shoes and feel what they feel. Compassion is when we feel empathy and feel an urge to do something to alleviate someone else's suffering. Both empathy and compassion play important roles in our relationships and society. So the next time you decide to put yourself in another person's shoes, why not take it a step further and do something to help the person out?
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