Compassion vs. Empathy

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Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. was in private practice for more than thirty years. He is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in the states ...Read More

There are a number of reactions that people have when a friend, neighbor or loved one is in some kind of life crisis, emotional pain and relationship conflict in their life. Some of the reactions may range from apathy to sympathy, empathy and compassion. Of the four reactions, apathy is the most negative because it’s a way of not caring about what happens to the other person. For example, when the Phillipines were hit by the huge hurricane that left millions homeless, some people ignored pleas for contributions of money to help the survivors because it was a matter of indifference to them. Those who were sympathetic might have thought that it’s too bad that those people were suffering so very much, and therefore, implying that they are superior or pitying of the victims of the disaster.

On the other hand, there were many others who felt empathy for the Phillipino people and did not know what to do to help because the entire tragedy was experienced as overwhelming. However, those who felt a sense of empathy and compassion were able to either contribute money, clothes and even more direct help.


The other three reactions are most positive but there are some problems with the first two, sympathy and empathy. Sympathy carries with it more than a small dose of pity for the other. Of course, the problem with pity is that it strongly implies a superior attitude to the one in pain or need. In other words, it is never helpful to feel sorry for the other person.

Empathy for the plight of others is very positive and powerful. In it the empathetic person is able to imagine being in the place of the troubled person and feel what they feel. In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels. Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual the be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.

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None of this implies that there is anything wrong with empathy. Simply put, we need a combination of both empathy and compassion to be most helpful to people.

You can read more about the research behind empathy and compassion at the following URL:

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

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