Empathy and Compassion

April 27, 2017 by School of Medicine Webmaster

The relationship between empathy and compassion has received a lot of attention recently as it has become clear that they are related but not the same.  Empathy is the ability to understand another person’s experience and to pay attention and respond to his or her emotions.  Empathy is necessary for optimal interpersonal relationships as it allows us to feel connected to others. A key component of empathy is self-awareness.  An empathic response involves a partial identification of the observer with the other.  When we sit with someone who is experiencing a difficulty we can notice our own emotional responses, and by paying attention to them respond appropriately and authentically.  Even though we may have never been through exactly the same situation or faced the identical challenge, being open to our own experience allows us to “touch in” to our own emotions, knowing that what arises in us is likely related to what is arising in the person we are with. Knowing this can allow us to respond in ways that increase our connectedness and improve our relationships.

However, when dealing with others who are experiencing difficult emotions or suffering, since we feel some of the same emotions, over time this can lead to feeling overwhelmed ourselves and result in what has been called “empathic distress”.  Thus, when faced with strong or repeated negative emotions in others, especially if they are close to us, we may find we close off these emotional connections because they are too painful and experience a loss of empathy.  This is one aspect of professional burnout that is often referred to as depersonalization.

Compassion is somewhat different than empathy, and involves bringing kind attention and understanding to the suffering of another along with the desire to alleviate it.  Mindfulness, non-judgmental present moment awareness, can be central to the development and maintenance of compassionate relationships by allowing us to be more aware of the sources of suffering and our potential responses to it.  We can feel overwhelmed by the number of emotions that can arise in dealing with others who are suffering, especially if we feel that we have to fix what is causing their difficulties.  Often we can’t fix it, such as when someone has experienced a great loss.  However, we can still be present, recognizing the emotions, acknowledging them along with our desire to help in a skillful way.  And being present may be enough.  Mindful awareness can help us recognize when the urge to fix others and make painful emotions go away arises, and perhaps to let the urge go, focusing instead on what is within our sphere of influence, our own intentions and responses.

Compassion has been described as feeling for another person, while empathy is feeling with them.    Empathy for someone who is suffering, especially if we are not paying attention to the where the suffering is arising, can result in self-related emotions and negative feelings that can lead to empathic distress and withdrawal.  On the other hand, compassion is often associated with other-related emotions and positive feelings, and leads to a desire to approach another and not withdraw.  (for more about this, see Singer and Klimecki, Current Biology 201;24:pR875-R878)

Compassion can be cultivated through meditation, by bringing to mind another person and intentionally expressing positive emotions toward him or her. This might be either through kindness meditation when we generate feelings of benevolence and positive regard toward the other, or through compassion meditation when we acknowledge suffering and generate the desire to alleviate it.  In order to really cultivate this capacity, we can practice this for people we care about, for those we are neutral toward, and even for those whom we might find difficult.  We can also do this with ourselves, generating the same feelings of well being or compassion for our own experiences. Both of these types of meditation have been shown to result in increased feelings of personal well being and helping behaviors toward others.  If you would like to try a kindness meditation, there is a 10 minute recording by Susan Stone on the Mindfulness Center website.  ( ).

Filed Under: Monthly Musings