Empathy and compassion are both vital parts of human emotion and thought and are often used as synonyms of each other – but they are not, in fact, the same.
Empathy shows sharing of mutual feelings, while compassion ignites a desire to react to those empathetic feelings. In other words: empathy is crucial for compassion. It is the lever, the driver, the motivator. Compassion, on the other hand, requires concern and the ability to act on that concern.
There are three types of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate.
Cognitive empathy requires emotional depth and is commonly understood as the definition in the colloquial usage of the word. Cognitive empathy is the act of interpreting a challenge or situation from another person’s viewpoint.
Emotional empathy typically derives from shared emotional experiences: it is a deep understanding of a person’s emotional state.
Compassionate empathy is more relatable to emotional empathy, but slightly differs as compassionate empathy stimulates one to act on that experience of empathy and tries to help shift the emotional state through change. Compassionate empathy inspires one to act, to improve a person’s struggle based on their unique understanding of their pain.
So if we want change, compassion is the key. Compassion recognizes suffering and leads one to pursue a solution (whether it for self or others). Empathy lacks such intention or movement.
There are a number of other important differentiators between compassion and empathy though.
Firstly, compassion should transcend boundaries. While it is easier to be empathic to those who are similar or close to you, compassion is a unifier. Champions of compassion seek to overlook cultural backgrounds, sexual orientation, creed, gender and age to be of service to others.
Being solutions-orientated, compassion also benefits not only the receiver but the giver of compassionate acts. Empathy can lead to fatigue: the frustration and helplessness of existing in another person’s plight. But compassion – through action – provides an outlet. That is supportive of an individual’s wellbeing since it gives them agency.
And this is why the the Global Compassion Coalition exists: to provide a space for the cultivation and effective expression of compassion targeted at relieving the greatest sources of suffering in the world. We can use compassion to transform our societies for the better and ignite change in our leaders and governments on a fundamental and strategic level. The solutions to the world’s most pressing problem exist: we just need compassion to implement them.
Khiteriara Brown is Press and Membership Officer at the GCC. She is writing in her own capacity.