Compassion vs. Empathy: What's the Difference?

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Compassion and empathy are two related terms that, while sometimes used interchangeably, have different and distinct meanings.

Empathy is about putting yourself in someone else’s position so that you can feel what they might feel in a situation. Compassion, on the other hand, is about recognizing someone's emotions and wanting to help them. 

This article discusses the meaning of compassion vs. empathy, how they differ, and how understanding these differences can help you navigate your relationships with others more effectively. 

Traits of Compassion vs. Empathy

While they are closely related, empathy and compassion are not the same. While both involve responding to other people’s emotions, they differ in focus.

Empathy is characterized by an awareness of other people's emotional experiences and an attempt to feel those same emotions from their perspective. Compassion is characterized by the desire to take action to help the other person.

Compassion is often comprised of traits and behaviors like the following:

  1. Recognition of the suffering of others
  2. Understanding that suffering is a universal experience
  3. Understanding and empathizing with the emotional experiences of other people
  4. Tolerating distressing and uncomfortable emotions that may arise
  5. Feeling motivated to take action to help alleviate the suffering of others

While they differ, compassion and empathy play important roles in forming and maintaining interpersonal relationships.

"Many of us can relate to the desire to show up and support those we care about, especially in times of suffering. We may even feel like this is a central characteristic of healthy relationships—having mutual support and being present for each other through good times and bad," explains Miriam Stone, LCSW, Senior Clinical Director of LifeStance Health.

Differences Between Compassion and Empathy

The differences between compassion vs. empathy include what the terms mean, the feelings they evoke, and the behaviors they inspire.


Empathy involves the ability to understand what another person feels. It means you can imagine yourself in another person's situation and feel what they must be feeling. Compassion evokes a sense of sympathy, concern, or pity for what other people are going through.

Emotional Response

Compassion and empathy also differ in the type of emotional response they evoke. Where empathy creates understanding, compassion is more likely to inspire feelings of concern, worry, or sympathy.

You might care about someone’s situation and feel moved to help them, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you understand what they are going through.

However, it is essential to note that empathy and compassion often occur together. Empathy often acts as fuel for compassion. By empathizing with someone, you might experience feelings of compassion and a desire to help.


Compassion tends to be based on taking action, whereas empathy is rooted in feeling. Because compassion is action-based, people are more likely to feel that their efforts have been useful. 

Empathy, while important, can sometimes contribute to greater feelings of burnout. Constantly feeling other people’s emotions can be overwhelming at times, and because it may not be linked to efforts to help, people may feel helpless or hopeless. In addition to causing feelings of personal distress, empathy can sometimes cause people to feel guilty or engage in avoidance behaviors, including social withdrawal.

Research has also found that people are often more likely to empathize with people they relate to. This might include people they actually know or even those who are similar to them in some way.

On the other hand, compassion is something that people can extend to others without necessarily needing to have a personal connection to the situation.

  • Involves sympathy and concern for someone who is suffering

  • Leads to action and helping behaviors

  • Can inspire positive feelings

  • Creates prosocial motivation

  • Altruistic response to suffering

  • Feeling the emotions of others

  • Leads to understanding

  • May inspire negative feelings

  • Can sometimes create withdrawal behaviors

  • Affective response to suffering

Similarities Between Compassion and Empathy

Both compassion and empathy can sometimes be overwhelming, particularly when people are exposed to situations that require these emotions for prolonged periods. When it comes to empathy, people can sometimes experience burnout, a type of exhaustion often caused by exposure to chronic emotional, physical, or mental stress. It can leave people feeling drained and unable to muster empathy for others.

"Burnout usually has a gradual onset in which we tend to feel physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausted after having been in a prolonged state of stress," Stone says.

Compassion can lead to a type of burnout known as compassion fatigue. This emotional and physical exhaustion leads to reduced feelings of empathy, increased cynicism, detachment, emotional numbness, and apathy.

People who work in healthcare settings that involve prolonged exposure to other people's suffering, such as nurses, first responders, and therapists, are more prone to experiencing compassion fatigue.

Miriam Stone, LCSW, Senior Clinical Director, LifeStance Health

When giving/caring/showing up for someone else feels more frustrating, stressful, and anxiety provoking for you—often to the extent that you struggle to access the empathy and compassion that once fueled your initial drive to help—it’s likely that you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. 

— Miriam Stone, LCSW, Senior Clinical Director, LifeStance Health

To try to prevent this, be mindful of how you are feeling. If you notice you are struggling to access your empathy and compassion, or it feels like it's too much for you, take a step back. Remember that your mental health is also important and that you can't help others if you don't take care of yourself.

Examples of Compassion and Empathy

Examples of compassion vs. empathy can further illustrate some of the key differences between the two concepts.

Examples of Compassion

  • Offering help to someone in need: This might include aiding someone with a task, such as carrying someone's groceries to their car. Or it might involve offering other types of assistance, such as performing household chores for a friend who is experiencing depression.
  • Volunteering for a cause: Compassion also often leads people to volunteer their time, skills, and effort for causes they care about. This might involve donating money or resources to an organization that helps people or volunteering to provide more hands-on assistance to a community organization.
  • Listening and being patient with others: Compassion can also cause people to listen to the concerns or experiences of others and extend greater patience as a result. For example, you might listen to someone talk about their recent challenges or give someone more time to work on a project because of something they have been going through in their personal life.
  • Forgiving others: The ability to forgive people who have wronged you is often rooted in compassion. While empathy might allow you to understand what they have experienced, compassion causes you to want to take action by extending forgiveness for the harm they have done.

Examples of Empathy

  • Actively listening to others: Empathizing involves listening carefully when others share their feelings and experiences. People who experience empathy in such situations may also ask questions or reflect on what someone has shared. 
  • Being able to sense other people's emotions: Empathy is characterized by being attuned to other people's emotions. Examples include being able to tell when someone feels sad, happy, upset, or angry.
  • Feeling what others are feeling: In addition to being aware of what others are feeling, examples of empathy include actually being able to feel these same emotional reactions. It might feel like you are absorbing these emotions so that you end up experiencing the same feelings. 

How Do You Turn Empathy Into Compassion?

Compassion and empathy can be thought of as existing on a spectrum along with sympathy. Sympathy focuses on thoughts; empathy adds feelings; and compassion encompasses thoughts, feelings, and actions. It is possible to turn empathy into compassion by consciously turning your feelings into prosocial actions:

  • Build self-awareness: Utilize mindfulness to build greater awareness of your own thoughts and experiences. This can help you become more attuned to your own responses to different situations. Researchers have also found that people tend to be more self-compassionate when they engage in mindfulness-based interventions.
  • Acknowledge the problem: Part of turning empathy into compassion is recognizing someone else's feelings and acknowledging that they need help.
  • Avoid judgment: Practice accepting people for who they are without trying to make judgments or assumptions. You are more likely to feel compassion for people if you avoid blaming the victim for their own suffering.
  • Find ways to help: Once you recognize suffering and experience empathy, ask yourself what you can do to help. This might mean supporting them in various ways, treating them kindly, or offering practical assistance. 
  • Cultivate a compassionate mindset: You can cultivate a more compassionate mindset with continued practice. Spend some time engaging in a practice that helps you gain greater empathy for others, such as loving-kindness meditation, which involves focusing on positive thoughts about others. As time passes, you may feel more in tune with other people's emotions and more motivated to take steps to help.

This doesn’t have to mean taking it upon yourself to fix other people’s problems. Instead, it is about offering the type of assistance you can provide to alleviate someone else's pain, whether large or small. Taking such actions can also help turn the distress that empathy can sometimes create into more positive emotions that compassion can elicit.

Research has also shown that people can learn to be more compassionate and that short-term compassion training can increase altruistic behavior.

Coping With Compassion and Empathy

Prolonged exposure to other people's pain and suffering can also contribute to feelings of burnout or compassion fatigue. In such cases, taking a step back and caring for yourself is essential. Stone recommends:

  • Practicing self-care: This can involve whatever helps you feel fueled and restored, whether journaling, meditating, mindfulness, yoga, walking, or just getting a good night's sleep.
  • Getting support: Reach out to friends and family or consider talking to a mental health professional.
  • Establish boundaries: Creating healthy boundaries in relationships can be a helpful way to manage emotional stress.

Miriam Stone, LCSW, Senior Clinical Director, LifeStance Health

Recognizing when you might be emotionally overextended and taking on too much is key. It will allow you to take a step back, set some healthy boundaries, and ultimately take the steps necessary to reprioritize your own physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

— Miriam Stone, LCSW, Senior Clinical Director, LifeStance Health

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Which is better, empathy or compassion?

    Compassion and empathy are both important characteristics that can support positive interpersonal relationships. Empathy fosters understanding, helping people to connect on an emotional level. This plays a crucial role in helping establish trust, intimacy, and social support.

    However, empathy without compassion can have pitfalls. It can lead to distress and become emotionally draining. People can absorb other people's negative emotions and find themselves feeling helpless or hopeless. 

    In some cases, empathy can even leave people divided. Researchers have found that when people empathize with others based on shared social connections, they are more likely to dehumanize others they see as part of the outgroup.

    Compassion is often viewed as a step beyond empathy. It focuses on taking action and alleviating distress in ways that benefit others and the self. Instead of feeling powerless, people feel less distressed, more capable, and more positive about their ability to change the world around them.

  • Can you be empathetic but not compassionate?

    Yes, you can experience empathy without feeling compassion. For example, you might empathize with a friend who is going through a difficult breakup. However, that doesn't mean that you will necessarily be moved to help relieve their pain. 

    In the same way, it is possible to experience compassion without necessarily feeling empathy. You can feel moved to help relieve someone's suffering without necessarily feeling what they are feeling.

    For example, you might spend time with a friend to take their mind off of something they are going through, even if you don't understand why they are upset. You might sympathize with their situation and be motivated to help them, even if you don't really understand what they are feeling. 

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."