Compassion vs. Empathy

One of the most interesting topics I learned when I first began taking courses centered around compassion was the difference between compassion and empathy. These words are often thrown around in the same context, and distinguishing the two from each other can help keep us from experiencing burnout and shutdown.

Compassion and empathy are related to each other, but they are not the same. Empathy refers to the more general ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another, while compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include awareness of suffering and the desire to help.

Empathy involves feeling another person’s emotional experience as if it were one’s own. It is the general capacity to resonate with the feelings of another, including both the positive and the negative. Feeling another person’s negative emotional experience may lead to empathic distress, a self-oriented response to suffering, which we will explore in more detail later on.

Compassion is the feeling of concern for another’s suffering, accompanied by the motivation to help alleviate the suffering. It involves paying attention to the condition of others/ourselves/the world, being moved by the suffering we witness, feeling the desire to help relieve that suffering, and taking action to alleviate it. Compassion is other-oriented, feeling for instead of feeling with the other. This difference helps to drive action instead of withdrawal.

Empathy is often unintentionally or automatically sharing the feelings of others, which includes both positive and negative emotions. Compassion is directly linked to suffering.

A study by Tania Singer and Olga M. Klimecki revealed that several days of empathy training led to an increase in self-reported negative affect. In contrast, subsequent compassion training in the same participants could reverse this effect by decreasing negative affect and increasing positive affect. Compassion also shows up in regions of the brain that empathy does not. You can read the study here.

Empathy can lead to compassion (a positive response that leads to action). Still, it can also lead to what I mentioned earlier, empathic distress (a negative response that can lead to shutdown/burnout/overwhelm).

What is empathic distress?

Empathic Distress is a self-oriented response to suffering, where one is more upset by another’s suffering than concerned for the other. It is accompanied by disassociation to reduce one’s own distress and protect oneself, which gets in the way of a compassionate response.

Empathic distress may also promote indifference to others’ suffering or lead to taking on the role of a “bystander,” someone who adjusts their feelings to match a noncommittal stance when the suffering of another is too overwhelming.

The opposite is also true. Kelly McGonigal speaks of empathic distress leading to “pathological altruism” in her book, The Science of Compassion. This is when the action of helping is not rooted in compassion; it is just an attempt to escape or reduce one’s own stress, guilt, discomfort, etc. A person will help others because they want to make themselves feel better. This can lead to unskillful behaviors like enabling or becoming a martyr.

What can be done to avoid responding in this way?

Mindfulness is such an incredible tool we can use to allow ourselves to be present with the direct experience of suffering. I’m going to share a practice I learned in Stanford CCARE’s Applied Compassion Training, a course I’m getting ready to graduate from. This exercise is called the Compassionate Presence and Inquiry Practice. It combines principles of compassion with principles of mindfulness, all of which are aimed at cultivating and strengthening our ability to be present with our experience directly. This is in contrast to what we normally do, which is: analyze, assume, judge, rationalize or try to ignore our experience completely. This practice acts as a pathway towards meeting suffering, which helps lead us to a compassionate response.

You are encouraged to connect with the following qualities throughout the practice:

  • Presence: Learning to stay with and observe the experience without judgment.
  • Curiosity: Coming into the practice with an open mind.
  • Intimacy: Allowing ourselves to get close to our experience in the way we would get close to a friend or loved one.
  • Humility: Approaching our experience as a journey of discovery, beginning with the willingness not to know the answers ahead of time.
  • Acceptance: Choosing to decide that whatever we encounter during this practice will be met with a sense of warmth and acceptance. Allow the experience to be exactly as it is.
  • Self-Compassion: Bringing care and support to our experience, especially to the parts of us that are suffering.

During this practice, we will rest in the direct experience, focusing on the ‘what’ and ‘where’ instead of the ‘why.’ Here are some examples of ‘what’ and ‘where’ questions:

  • What is arising for me at this moment?
  • Where do I experience this in the body?
  • What sensations are present right now?
  • What is it like to turn attention towards this experience and the sensations it evokes?

Experiencing painful or difficult emotions can often trigger thoughts that are self-critical and unhelpful. Thoughts like: “When will this end?” “Why is this happening to me?” “I can’t handle this.” “What is wrong with me?” “Why does it feel like nothing is going right?”

These types of thoughts take us out of the actual experience and can add to increased feelings of judgment, shame, or worthlessness if we believe them. These feelings can lead to further suffering.

Compassionate Presence and Inquiry is the practice of seeing our thoughts AS thoughts instead of as facts. Thoughts will naturally come and go throughout the practice. That is part of being human. We can label these thoughts as thoughts instead of treating them as truth. We can recognize them as thoughts and then gently return our attention to the direct experience as it unfolds in the body.

The experiences of pain and suffering are often perceived in our minds as “too much to bear.” In this practice, we will trust in our capacity to meet with our direct experience within the context of each moment, sensation by sensation.

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