What it means to live with empathy and compassion

Not all of our instincts are rooted in goodwill. We often let other people’s emotions affect us, or misjudge them based on our own biases. For many of us, it can be a challenge to be kind and accepting of others who aren’t like us. The natural response many of us have when someone disagrees is to get angry and defensive. We even get biased when we come across people who hold a different belief, or opinion than our own. 

Some of us grow highly critical of people who share their vulnerabilities and negative emotions. In other words, we dislike people who don’t match up with our emotions. We tend to outcast those who are overly emotional or under-enthused. Either we judge others for sharing their vulnerabilities, or ostracise them for not being on the same emotional frequency.

To truly coexist in this world of diverse opinions, views and expectations is to grow more accepting of other people. We can do so by increasing our awareness of compassion and empathy that makes us more tolerant of other people, their emotions, and the situations they are in. If you want to develop healthy, wholesome connections, you’ve got to grow in your understanding of what it means to empathise and what it means to be compassionate in a relationship.

The highest form of knowledge is empathy.

Bill Bullard

Understanding empathy..

Empathy consists of our cognitive and emotional reactions to the observed experiences of another. It evokes the desire to understand other people’s emotions. Empathy can be emotional and consists of three separate components. The first is feeling the same emotion as another person, the second is referring to one’s own feelings of distress in response to perceiving another’s feelings. And the third is having compassionate feelings for another person.

The cognitive empathy is based on how well we can perceive and understand the emotions of another. It involves having an accurate knowledge about the contents of another persons’ mind, including how the person feels. Empathy reduces indifference, helps us connect with others, and fosters emotional well-being. While studies suggest that empathy is well-intentioned, it isn’t neutral and is limited when compared to compassion.

Empathy and sympathy 

Many people confuse empathy with sympathy.  While being sympathetic( feeling sorry for someone), we don’t connect with the experience or perspective of others, but only pity or console them. Empathy(feeling with someone) on the other is based on understanding of another person’s experience by putting oneself in other person’s situation.

Although sympathy is not a negative quality to have, it can often prevent us from truly understanding what it is that other person is trying to communicate to us. This is because we view it from our own perspective and not theirs. You can understand or imagine why someone is either going through a hard time or why some might be feeling happy or sad.

Having empathy, one works to understand the experiences and perspectives of others alongside of their own. We do not need to agree with the other person in order to show empathy, rather showing empathy makes the other comfortable about sharing their feelings. It helps us create space for other’s opinions and feelings, so we can come to an understanding of each other’s perspectives, needs, and intentions. 

Empathy and compassion

Empathy and compassion are mostly used interchangeably, and stem from same goal to better relate and understand others’ experiences. However, they are different. Compassion is when you relate to someone’s situation, and you want to help them. It is the desire to help when someone is in distress. Though it begins with empathy, it is one step further than empathy where we acknowledge the commonality of human condition. 

Feeling for someone, “I understand what you are going through, I’ve been there”, is empathy. It is our feeling of awareness toward other people’s emotions and an attempt to understand how they feel. Compassion on the other is an emotional response to empathy that creates a desire to help. 

Being compassionate is also different from the basic concept of kindness. In other words, it is possible to be kind, but without any real empathy for the other’s suffering. Compassion is kindness rooted in appreciation of other human beings as real people who also suffer. Where empathy is being able to perceive others’ feelings, and to have concern for their welfare, compassion involves positive action with a goal to prevent the suffering of others. 

Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

Dalai Lama

Why compassion is better than empathy 

Though empathy is an important emotion for human connection, in times of crisis, on its own, without compassion, it makes us biased. It impacts our ability to make effective decisions. This is because it comes from a feeling of sameness, and makes us unconsciously more sympathetic towards those we relate to us more. If you are frequently empathetic towards a person, you may experience a great deal of burnout. Compassion on the other is a renewable resource, 

Our inherent tendency is to identify with those who are close to us —in proximity, in familiarity, or close in kinship. Though the distress or suffering is the same, the relationship you share with the person changes your emotional response. And when we empathise with those close to us, we become indifferent towards those who are not. 

When it goes unchecked, it can create more differences than unity. While we tend to support and protect our in-group, we can perceive outsiders as part of an out-group and a threat to our social identity. In its, extreme, empathy can make us averse to those who are different from us. 

Though it may feel good at first, it can also make you feel stuck. You may empathise with others’ suffering, but may stop short of actually helping. Not taking any action to resolve the issue, your empathetic feelings sometimes might turn into rumination. Overtime, it can deplete our cognitive resources. 

Compassion on the other hand, is more constructive with an intent to help. Since it creates emotional distance from the person and the situation, you make the conscious choice to turn emotion into action.  It makes us solution-focused and we are motivated to do it again in the future.  

Empathy results in reflexive feelings, thoughts, and decisions. Compassion on the other is more reflective, where one is more deliberate in their thoughts compassionate feelings attempts, and in their ability to help. 

Importance of practicing Empathy and Compassion 

Empathy is our natural resonance with the emotions of others, and compassion is one of the many responses to empathy. True compassion is being kind regardless of what you are feeling. Though they are two different things, they do go hand in hand. There can be no compassion if there is no empathy, and one cannot empathise if he or she is not compassionate.

By practicing compassion, we can become more resilient and improve our overall well-being. It increases your awareness of others’ needs, values and life experiences. Instead of reacting instinctively, in your day-to-day disagreements, you can go beyond your emotions and thoughts, and manage an appropriate response. 

Practicing empathy leads to avoid unnecessary friction in your interpersonal relationships— work, teams, family, peers, and friends. Understanding why the other is struggling and having the desire to look for ways to help them get past it creates a collaborative approach towards any relationship. 


  • Cultivate positive self-talk. Having genuine compassion for yourself, helps you to be more tolerant towards other’s suffering. Extend the same compassion towards yourself as you would to your friends or any other person. 
  • Avoiding overwhelm and paying attention leads to be compassionate and caring in a balanced way.
  • Compassion also implies that you have the wisdom to know that it’s not up to you to fix the world for others. You can’t function if you are just taking in other’s pain all the time. Strike the balance in helping and letting go of things you can’t change. 
  • Be more authentic and take on the perspective of the other person. This stops you from being over-reactive and saying something that you might regret later. 
  • Practice active and compassionate listening by fully present in the moment. Check your intention when offering help and be deliberate in choosing to stand for what you truly believe in.

Take time for contemplative or reflective practices that makes you more self-aware. Cultivating empathy and compassion improves your perception of others, and the connectedness between self and others. They are associated with more favourable attitudes, even when you completely disagree and don’t share the same views as those of others.

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