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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
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Compassion vs. Empathy

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Feb 17th 2014

Compassion vs. EmpathyThere are a number of reactions that people have when a friend, neighbor or loved one is in some kind of life crisis, emotional pain and relationship conflict in their life. Some of the reactions may range from apathy to sympathy, empathy and compassion. Of the four reactions, apathy is the most negative because it's a way of not caring about what happens to the other person. For example, when the Phillipines were hit by the huge hurricane that left millions homeless, some people ignored pleas for contributions of money to help the survivors because it was a matter of indifference to them. Those who were sympathetic might have thought that it's too bad that those people were suffering so very much, and therefore, implying that they are superior or pitying of the victims of the disaster.

On the other hand, there were many others who felt empathy for the Phillipino people and did not know what to do to help because the entire tragedy was experienced as overwhelming. However, those who felt a sense of empathy and compassion were able to either contribute money, clothes and even more direct help.

The other three reactions are most positive but there are some problems with the first two, sympathy and empathy. Sympathy carries with it more than a small dose of pity for the other. Of course, the problem with pity is that it strongly implies a superior attitude to the one in pain or need. In other words, it is never helpful to feel sorry for the other person.

Empathy for the plight of others is very positive and powerful. In it the empathetic person is able to imagine being in the place of the troubled person and feel what they feel. In fact, empathy precedes compassion. Empathy without compassion leaves the individual drained of energy as a result of feeling what the other feels. Empathy occurs immediately and leaves no emotional room between the individual and the one who is suffering. Compassion is more cognitive in nature. There is a sense of self awareness that provides some necessary space between the two people. The empathizer experiences the same suffering with the other, leaving the empathizer overwhelmed. As a result, compassion allows the individual the be more helpful than the individual who experiences empathy alone.

None of this implies that there is anything wrong with empathy. Simply put, we need a combination of both empathy and compassion to be most helpful to people.

You can read more about the research behind empathy and compassion at the following URL:

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

I'd Be Happy To See More Of Either - Cathy - Jan 15th 2015

I had not really thought about this before, the dynamics but I often wonder what happened to compassion in our society.  I think that is probably common to many, not really thinking so much about empathy although I am all too aware of how that plays out in society.

I am trying to put this together in my head.  I just always thought of sympathy as being expressed for pure tragedy and that would be followed by, with many people saying, "What can I do?"  I never thought of it as anything like me or someone else feeling superior.  I seeing feeling superior as a result of apathy which I consider to be an epidemic in the world today.  "Everyone for themselves." 

I do think that today with the internet and cable TV, that we become overwhelmed and I think that adds to people shutting down from "feeling", a coping mechanism to save themselves.

I don't know, I think this is probably too complicated for me to really grasp.  I am just certain that years ago the majority of people had apathy and compassion, good hearts and now, sociopathy and narcissism have taken front stage.  Boo!  Tough time to be alive.



Empathy vs Compassion - - Dec 18th 2014

While I understand your comparisons on empathy vs compassion, I believe you make a generalization that empaths are overwhelmed and incapable of responsing and become a part of the problem. Whereas compassionate people are able to act in a helpful way. If this is occuring I would not consider that empathy, but rather introjection. My generalization I would make is, that those who have compassion without empathy appear disingenuine, and self serving. Almost as if they are looking to find ways to feel good about themselves, more than they are internally inspired to help, and hence seek out those "in need". Ultimately, I agree that to be effective one needs the ability to experience/imagine the other's vulnerability/pain/need, as it shows up and not seeking it out, AND the ability to respond by asking "How can I help?" Assuming one's own idea of what is "helpful" is also often a projection of what THEY may want in the situation. This is not helpful. Just ask "how can I help?".

almost killed by fellow students - Mell Norris - Oct 2nd 2014

I was walking to school and a pickup truck stoped to give me a ride the two guys in it were upper class I started to climb in on the side and one  said get in from the tailgate so I walked around and put one foot over the tailgate when the driver poped the clutch and flipped me on my head knocked me out when i came too i walked to school i saw     the two jerks at school they said if i told anyone they would kill me I was treated that way all my life because of child abuse as i wrote before. These two were the leaders of the upper clas of the school and all the teachers thought they so nice. I wish I had the courage to report them. I suffer 24/7 migraines am 80 years old if any one has this happen pleas tell someone. thanks again 


your blog on involuntary committa - michael sheehan - Jun 27th 2014

I read with interest your blog on “Can you have a loved one committed”.

While I completely agree on client rights to make decisions and self-determination,  I have a friend who developed psychosis and extreme paranoia for the first time and, due to his bizarre behaviour around his neighbours and damaging his rented apartment (pulling out things he believed were listening devises), he ended up losing his accommodation, being banned from shopping precincts, accumulating hundreds of dollars in fines for antisocial behaviour in public,  which ruined his ‘reputation’ yet he was not a danger to himself or others.  This outrages me as he is now homeless after being stable for over 10 years in accommodation which he loved and has burnt his bridges around obtaining further accommodation or living in the area again which he was most familiar with.

Moreover, being paranoid, he did not want to go for an assessment because he was mistrustful and when I convinced him to finally go, mental health staff refused to assess him  because verbally aggressive (not physical) claiming their safety was at risk! This seems to be a good gatekeeping strategy – we can’t see them because they are aggressive. So he could never be assessed!  There was another Catch 22: They wouldnt come out to his unit to assess him as he ‘may be’ a danger yet the police wouldn’t come out because he wasn’t threating anyone!  Also, when they did ask any questions, the assessment questions were very blunt indeed and not sensitive and probing at all into his beliefs.

Finally he now is in a psychiatric hospital  getting treatment, though I fear they cant wait to kick him out because of lack of beds.  But his reputation is damaged and he has lost his accommodation.  He should have been treated as an involuntary  client before he lost everything! Now that he is better, he is also stating this!


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