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  • Melissa Sims

Empathy vs. Compassion and Why We Need Both

When I first began teaching yoga, I learned very quickly that it could be emotionally draining. Students would come to me after class and tell me that they felt great after my classes, some even going so far as to ask me if I was a “healer.” I didn’t quite know how to process that information. Yes, it was a major compliment, but it also made me a little uncomfortable. There’s a fine line between “being the yoga” and letting your ego get inflated because your students love you. If the ego enters the equation, you become antithetical to the whole purpose of yoga. But, I digress. My exhaustion from my classes wasn’t from the extreme heat or the physical activity of yoga. It was because I was taking on the emotions of others without understanding how to protect my own. I do believe I am an empath, and now I know how to shift the empathy into compassion in order to protect my mental and emotional health. Because you encounter some seriously heavy situations on a regular basis, I think it is crucially important for you to understand not only the difference between empathy and compassion, but to also learn why one is better for you than the other.

Let’s start with some basic definitions. Empathy is feeling with someone, you’re actively in it. It is defined by the Oxford dictionary as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Empathetic people often draw on past experiences, putting themselves in the other person’s shoes, and often resonating with the emotions the person is going through. Empathy allows you to connect with others emotionally, and to even see things from their perspective. Empathy is so important in recognizing how to communicate with others and how to connect with them, but if one loses sight of the self/other distinction, where the line between my emotions and your emotions becomes blurred, it could lead to emotion contagion. This is where we can take on the emotions of others, unknowingly, and allow it to consume our own state of being. Not only that, but empathy can make us unwittingly biased, as we become more sympathetic towards individuals we relate to more. This makes us less likely to connect with people who might be different than us, or whose experiences don’t mirror our own. That’s because empathy stems from “sameness.” This is when bias can enter the situation.

Compassion, on the other hand, is defined as “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Now, I am not a fan of the word pity, but I will agree with the rest of the definition. Compassion is feeling a deep concern for others and going well beyond empathy, as there’s the desire to alleviate one’s suffering, a desire to selflessly help another. It is being able to recognize someone’s pain, anger, or sadness, yet not allow it to dictate how we feel. It’s important to note that you cannot have compassion without empathy. Empathy is your foundation for compassion, a building block if you will. Once we have empathy and can keep the distinction of self-other, we can move into compassion. Empathy requires being involved, while compassion could simply be a friendly face or shoulder to cry on. And really, what the other person likely needs is not someone to magnify their anger by participating in it - they likely need someone to allow them to calm down.

Your emotional intelligence will directly impact your success in finding the way to compassion through empathy. You must have the self-awareness to know when your empathy (without compassion) is triggered so you can explore and meet your own needs. Empathetic feelings should be your warning signal to stop and say to yourself “what do I need right now? Why am I reacting this way?” Checking in with yourself builds upon your awareness and emotional intelligence. So you basically have a decision when empathy arises - do I stay here in these emotions, or do I respond with compassion?

In my yoga classes, and I’ve even noted in some of our workshops that can get a bit emotional, I believe I was experiencing emotion contagion. And not just one person’s emotions. A whole room of them! Sadness, fear, shame, guilt, happiness, excitement, bliss…all of it. Once I conferred with another person about my experience, I realized that I could still teach without having to feel EVERYTHING that wasn’t my own. How? Through a shift in my awareness and a turn toward compassion over empathy.

So when you visit a client, or deal with a tough scenario, are you moving toward compassion? I can understand how easy you might get stuck in empathy, you want to connect with your clients. But the best way to help a client is to do so through compassion. We can build upon our compassion skills by being self-aware. Realizing when we are overwhelmed, or burned out, which is bound to happen at one time or another. What’s important is recognizing what’s happening in the present moment so you are able to achieve balance. Remember that we can’t be compassionate toward others until we are compassionate to ourselves.

Practicing compassion allows us to recognize that we aren’t responsible for changing the world. We must have the wisdom to know that can’t change other people, and if we are constantly taking in their pain, we will absolutely burn out. Our jobs as compassionate humans is to acknowledge others’ pain, to have the desire to help them find their way out of their pain, and to let go if they don’t. It isn’t our pain.

A great meditation you can practice on your own to help build your compassion and to somewhat protect your mental and emotional stability is the Loving Kindness Meditation, which you can find here.


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