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What is the Relationship Between Empathy and Compassion?

The question comes up a lot about what is the relationship between empathy and compassion? What first needs to be acknowledged is that there are many definitions of empathy and compassion. People point to different phenomena, experiences or actions and call it empathy or compassion. So it's easy to be using the same word but be pointing to a different experiences.

In my view and definition, empathy is process of connecting with (feeling into) the full range of human experience, i.e.; feelings, intentions, values, needs, desires, etc.

How do I and the others feel?



Do you know what  they are feeling?


Compassion is the Slice of Human Experience Related to Suffering.

Compassion, by common definition, is connecting with the slice of experience related to suffering. So in my view and understanding, 'empathic compassion' is the slice of the empathy spectrum or pie that specifically relates to suffering. There are no hard and fast delineations between empathy and empathic compassion.  
(Find Example Definitions)



Compassion as a Part of the Empathy Spectrum

Another way of looking at this is that we naturally empathize with the full spectrum of human experience. We feel peoples joy, happiness, creativity, fun, pain, etc. Compassion is when we empathize with the parts of spectrum than deal with human suffering. Often the desire to alleviate the suffering is also considered part of the definition.

Sympathetic Compassion
Another type of compassion would be sympathetic compassion. This is were someone feels stressed by seeing someones suffering and feels sorry for that person and wants to help them. The person is detaching from being present with the sufferer because they are focusing on their own feeling. The problem with helping that comes from this is that it's geared toward the sympathizer trying to alleviate their own suffering versus the suffering of the other person. The actions don't necessarily address the real needs of the sufferer.

The definition from Websters for compassion; "sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it" (reference link)

Why Focus on Empathy?
I like to focus on empathy because I get better at connecting with the full range of life's rich experiences. I find it depressing to only focus on pain and suffering. I don't want to avoid the suffering,  but also do not want to dwell and just focus on it.

Empathy is Healing and Action

People from the compassion community sometimes say that empathy is a neutral quality. They say we can empathize with people, but it is neutral and doesn't lead to healing or action. This is not accurate because empathy itself has a deeply healing quality (*reference) and is the gateway to effective action.

People who are doing well, feel even better when someone empathizes with them. Also as therapy shows, people how are dealing with a wide variety of emotional issues or problems can be healed with empathic talk therapy.   Also when we stay present with people we can address their real needs.

 This old saying captures this truism,
 "Joys shared are joys double, 
Sorrows shared are sorrows halved".