Compassion is often confused and used interchangeably with other concepts, such as empathy, sympathy, and pity. To know if you are truly being compassionate, there are two key characteristics of compassion that distinguish it from these other constructs.
One is in the element of suffering that is present, along with a desire to alleviate that suffering. Compassion is innate and arises out of loving-kindness as a natural response to suffering or pain, but there is also the element of action.
Having compassion means that you take action to offer kindness and understanding when failure, mistakes or misfortune are experienced, rather than criticizing, condemning, or otherwise judging harshly. If the suffering is experienced within oneself, the desire and action taken to alleviate that suffering is called self-compassion.
Compassion is most commonly confused with empathy. Yet, there are some key differences between empathy and compassion. According to the Oxford Dictionary, “Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is that comforting “me too” experience that creates connection. Compassion also serves to create a sense of connection. However, compassion is not a feeling, it’s an action.
The two main differences between compassion and empathy are the element of suffering that exists and the desire to take action to alleviate that suffering. Suffering may or may not exist when experiencing empathy, but not necessarily. Also, you can feel empathy for someone, identify with their feelings and perhaps even their experience, without a desire to take action.
Sympathy is different from both empathy and compassion in that it’s generally a feeling of sorrow for someone else’s misfortune. It’s also an expression of care and concern that is often accompanied by a desire to see that person happier. With compassion, there is a recognition of the other person’s emotional state and a desire to take action to help alleviate their suffering. Similar to the experience of empathy, you can feel sympathy for someone with or without the desire to take action to alleviate their suffering.
Pity is also commonly confused with compassion, but they are two very different concepts. Pity is a feeling of concern for someone thought to be inferior or weaker than oneself and will generally result in a feeling of separation and disconnection since pity is rooted in a sense of superiority. Whereas compassion is recognizing the weakened state and taking action to help the individual, while not treating that person as inferior. It means that you realize that suffering, failure, and imperfections are all part of the shared human experience.
The practice of compassion begins with acknowledging our own suffering and cultivating more loving kindness toward ourselves. According to Buddhist philosophy, we must care about ourselves before we are able to care about other people. If we are continually judging and criticizing ourselves while trying to be kind to others, it will only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.
When we connect with our innate compassion, we contact our true nature, strengthen our spirit, and allow others to do the same. Self-compassion is the purest form of self-love and aside from the many health benefits, including reduced stress, increased happiness, and increased social connectedness, it provides an ability to be more compassionate toward others and results in greater overall resilience.