Empathy and compassion are mentioned often in this training, and it’s easy to lump them together. They are similar, and there is some crossover, but they are also different in important ways.
In her book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (2008), Brené Brown references nursing scholar Teresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:
- The ability to see the world through another person’s perspective
- Staying out of judgment
- Paying attention to, and doing our best to understand, another person’s emotions
- Communicating your understanding of that person’s feelings
A key difference is that compassion always involves a desire for action. While we first need to see someone’s suffering, compassion is about channeling our empathetic feelings into action. Compassion taps into common humanity and the fact that we all have a deep understanding of what it means to suffer. Since all of us have a personal understanding of suffering, when we experience compassion we are motivated to reach out to someone in pain or struggle and to support the alleviation of their suffering.
Self-compassion is about choosing to see and acknowledge our own suffering. It is about offering a compassionate response to our suffering, instead of blaming or judging ourselves and letting our inner critic beat us up. We will look at this in greater detail in Module 14: Building Personal Resilience.
What are your reflections about the difference between empathy and compassion?