Empathy is feeling with someone.  It is seeing another person’s pain and feeling from inside what that pain might be like.  Compassion is empathy in action; she feels empathy for another soul and then take-action to alleviate a part of their suffering. 

Compassion is not giving away life and limb to “save” another person.  Compassion is healthy; it is not enmeshed in rescuing, enabling, or fixing others.  Compassion empowers the giver as well as the recipient.  Compassion does not stay in toxic or abusive relationships.  Compassion does not please another to avoid conflict or please another by neglecting her needs; that would be inauthentic and codependent.

Compassion is circular, both self-compassion and compassion for others are essential pieces of the flow.  We must first have compassion for ourselves and set proper boundaries for appropriate self-care so that we may meet the world with an empathetic heart and act with compassion. 

Empathy is not feeling sorry for another human being, that is pity.  Pity is judging another to be less fortunate than we are.  Pity is based of differences whereas empathy and compassion are based on similarities and shared humanity.   

  • Pity saves the poor soul because they are less fortunate and need help.  The recipient most likely feels judged and beneath the one who is offering help.  Pity does not build closeness or relationship, it often fosters resentment in the recipient.  Pity is kindness from an up position.
  • Empathy sees the suffering of another soul and feels deeply because she understands what that pain is like.  Empathy is seeing how another soul’s suffering is not far from her own.  Empathy builds closeness and fosters relationships.  The recipient usually feels valued, connected, and understood.
  • Compassion is feeling another’s suffering and being deeply moved to do something to alleviate part of their suffering.  A compassionate heart understands how difficult life can be, she understands how fallible and imperfect our lives can be and she shows up to do what she can to ease some pain.  As Pema Chodron says, “Compassion is a relationship between equals.”  A compassionate heart knows that their suffering could happen to anyone include herself.  Compassion builds intimacy.  The recipient usually feels unconditional love, valued, understood, and often inspired to continue helping themselves.

It seems both empathy and compassion are given a bad rap some of the time.  This disease of giving too much is not empathy or compassion.  That is co-dependence or improper boundaries.  There are times when others who are in pain are especially needy, as many of us can be some of the time.  When these interactions arise especially strong boundaries are needed to ensure we are tending our own needs. 

I often hear many who explain that they are empaths and are very sensitive to other peoples’ energy, making it hard to not experience burn out at work or with certain relationships.  I understand how parasitical some interactions can be; it is especially vital for empaths and people who work as caregivers such as nurses or therapists to have a committed self-care practice.  Your self-care is your time to recharge.  It is important to honor our limits as human beings as best we can.  Remember it is an act of self-esteem to honor our limits which includes ending a conversation when it is sucking too much of our energy.