Most people use the words empathy and compassion interchangeably. But actually there’s an important difference between the two. And if you don’t understand the difference, you’re more susceptible to burnout - especially if you’re faced with suffering everyday.
Nurses, doctors, therapist, teachers and all those caring for others in need can be helped. By discovering the power of cultivating not only empathy but compassion, you can ensure you not only survive, but thrive - and help others in the process too.
Let’s start with empathy. Empathy is feeling someone else’s emotions. So if someone is feeling happy, you feel happy too! That’s empathy. And if someone is feeling sad, you too feel sad. That is also empathy. When you feel what someone else feels, it’s called resonating with their emotions. Empathy is good. If you have empathy, you are more deeply connected with another human being. Imagine if you’re feeling sad and I talk to you. You want me to also feel what you feel - that would mean I better appreciate how you’re feeling.
As a care-giver, if you resonate with someone who suffers, or face day after day with suffering, what happens? You get overwhelmed and burn out.
Excessive empathy in the face of suffering doesn’t help you or other, as you end up in empathy fatigue - completely worn out by experiencing suffering day after day.
Moving in Compassion
Compassion is different from empathy. Compassion starts with empathy, but also includes the motivation to do something to alleviate that suffering. Doing something could be simply listening, or could involve taking physical action.
Compassion is also more cognitive rather than having a sense of being overwhelmed with emotion. Through self-awareness, compassion leaves a space between you and the other who is suffering, so there is the opportunity to take positive action. When you’re being compassionate, you have an awareness of you separate from the person you’re with, together with a desire to help.
For example, if I see someone crying with sadness, empathy would be feeling that sad feeling too. Compassion would be to talk them through the feeling and ask if there’s any way you can help. Perhaps hugging them if they want. It would also be about remembering the suffering that person is going through is impermanent - like everything is impermanent. You may then visualise them in a more positive mind state and helping them get there. That may be through helping them to accept their feeling or through some action to change it.
Buddhism has some great insights here. In Buddhism, there is the practice of compassion called karuna. Karuna is the idea of sharing in suffering and having concern for another. BUT here’s the difference: Compassion is feeling for the other. Not feeling with the other.
So compassion isn’t about running away from suffering or being overwhelmed by suffering. Neither is compassion about pretending that suffering doesn’t exist. When you are practicing compassion, you can stay present with suffering, but with a sense of space so you are in a position to help if they’d like it.
What the research shows
Neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki did a study comparing empathy and compassion. One group was trained in empathy and the other in compassion. There was an amazing difference in the brain studies from the empathy and compassion group.
Empathy training activated the:
insula (linked to emotion and self-awareness)
anterior cingulate cortex (linked to emotion and consciousness), as well as pain registering).
So perhaps we can say empathy was about feeling the emotion and the pain associated with the emotion.
The compassion group stimulated activity in:
Medial orbitofrontal cortex (connected to learning and reward in decision making)
ventral striatum (also connected to the reward system).
In the compassion group, it appears to be more associated positively with making a decision, learning and a positive sense of reward. Perhaps this is because when you are compassion, you’re thinking about how to make a positive difference and that feels good.
Attitude to Action
The empathy-trained group found empathy uncomfortable.
The compassion group was different. They found the experience positive. The compassion group felt kinder and more motivated to help others, compared to the empathy group.
Here’s an image from Tania’s research that shows the difference between what they call compassion and empathic distress:
This video by Matthieu Ricard is better. He explains what is empathy and what is compassion:
So compassion can never really be the cause burnout because compassion is a positive emotion - perhaps the most positive of all emotions. Not only do you sense the suffering someone is going through, but you feel you’re making a difference to make them overcome their suffering.
Ok, so how do you cultivate compassion?
Here’s my 8 personal tips to help you move from empathy to compassion in those difficult moments.
Celebrate your empathy. If you find yourself with someone and feeling the suffering they are going through, be proud of that. Empathy is the starting point of compassion. In that way, empathy is a very positive state to be in.
Cultivate bodily awareness. Compassion requires a certain distance between you and the person you intend to help. So take a step back and feel your bodily sensations. Notice your feet on the floor, the sensation of your breath in your lungs or the weight of your body on the chair. This will bring you back into the present moment.
Realise you’re helping. Realise by listening unconditionally and non-judgmentally, you’re helping that person to heal. You’re caring for them. Just as you are healed when someone shares something deeply with you. Your listening is actually a positive act of compassion which is helping the situation, even if it feels like it isn’t. Listening is powerful and transformative - often more powerful than giving advice.
Sending positive wishes. You can send the feeling of positivity and wellbeing to the other person. Thoughts like ‘may you be well, may you be happy, may you be healthy’. By wishing them well, you’re doing a kind action in your mind which may soon translate into action too.
Remember suffering is impermanent. Everything is impermanent. Including this human being’s suffering. This is SO easy to forget in the moment of suffering. And just remembering this thought may not make a huge difference. But it may make a small difference. And in these moments, small difference is the ONLY thing you can do. So in a way, the small difference is actually a big deal. A small step is a giant leap. Neil Armstrong was so right!
Common humanity - Remember they’re not alone. The person you’re helping is suffering, but so are so many others too. Suffering is part of our everyday lives. It’s not all rainbows and unicorns and fluffy clouds in blue skies, is it? Life can be really, really hard. Life can also be hugely joyful and wonderful and beautiful too. But know that in this moment, this person is experiencing a difficulty which is part of life.
Good can come out of suffering. Is suffering always bad? When you’ve gone through a challenge in the past, did you learn something? Did you grow? So remember this challenge may lead to their transformation. I wouldn’t recommend sharing this with them quite yet! But knowing that can help you see the suffering in context.
Practise loving kindness meditation. This is a lovely practice to cultivate more compassion in your heart. And there’s nice research by Barbara Fredickson to show that this meditation can be healing and helps to cultivate more compassion in your life.
You can try this one:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” - Dalai Lama
It has taken me a while to understand the difference between empathy and compassion - so if you don’t get it straight away, don’t worry about it. Read through these and the ideas in the links at the end of the this article to further reflect on the concepts.
Above all, compassion is associated with a sense of love and care in the face of someone’s suffering. Empathy is simply feeling what other person is feeling, whether that emotion is positive or difficult.
https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-clarity/201703/compassion-is-better-empathy https://chopra.com/articles/whats-the-difference-between-empathy-sympathy-and-compassion https://www.mentalhelp.net/blogs/compassion-vs-empathy/
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