Is There a Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?

Is There a Difference Between Empathy and Compassion?

Empathy and compassion are frequently used interchangeably. But are they the same? Let’s discuss the subtle differences between empathy and compassion.”

Empathy: Feeling what a person is feeling.

Understanding empathy requires us to discuss a special part of our brain that holds mirror neurons. Found in the premotor cortex, these neurons fire both when a person acts as well as when the person observes the act. This “mirroring” behavior has been postulated to help us understand the actions and intentions of others. Most research done in this field has been completed on monkeys and has not yet been rigorously studied in human models though could possibly explain where in our minds our natural empathic abilities arise.

“…frequent empathy in high stress situations can overwhelm and begin to cause burn out.”

Although empathy can be an incredible learning and bonding experience, is there such a thing as too much empathy? The short answer is yes. In moderation, empathy can be helpful to connect with others and have a deeper understanding of their pain. However, frequent empathy in high stress situations can overwhelm and begin to cause burn out. This is frequently seen in such environments with first responders. When we empathize, we join the suffering of another without actually offering help or a means to overcome the hardship.

“People prone to frequent empathetic response are more likely to feel depressive symptoms.”

A recent study found that empathy triggered in a social connection made it more likely to dehumanize people that belonged to an outgroup. In other words, we empathize with those who are close to us and are similar to us. Others that do not fall into this category are placed in an outsider realm. People prone to frequent empathetic response are more likely to feel depressive symptoms.

Compassion: Willingness to relieve the suffering of another.

Compassion allows one to hold space for another without becoming overwhelmed by the suffering. There is still a space of love but it takes one step back from being fully immersed and absorbed by the pain. With this extra space and clarity, we can ask how exactly we can help. While empathy can feel quite reflexive at times, compassion requires a somewhat more reflective and cognitive approach. When we take this approach, we find more of an understanding of the common humanity we share.

“Studies also suggest that people that practice a compassionate lifestyle have lower inflammation levels in their bodies.”

Compassion allows for a more constructive space, creating room for emotion to transform into action. Compassion can be taught and developed and is currently a part of many business trainings. The Dalai Lama’s personal doctor, Dr. Barry Kerzin, has created the Altruism in Medicine Institute with the mission to teach compassion to medical schools in the same regard as anatomy and biochemistry. Studies also suggest that people that practice a compassionate lifestyle have lower inflammation levels in their bodies.

Once we make this subtle shift in thinking, we can allow our minds to process suffering in a whole new light. With this frame of mind, we can begin to evolve our automatic empathic reflex to a higher and more serving space of compassion.


Sarah Abedi, MD is an emergency medicine doctor practicing in Southern California. She completed her medical school at UC Irvine and finished her emergency medicine residency at Harbor UCLA. Her medical interests lie in the science of disease prevention which motivated her to create The Hidden Body Podcast.