During a ceremony on my last meditation retreat, I looked this woman in the eyes and she was sobbing (with joy) and BAM! I started sobbing – also with joy – for how beautiful and precious the moment was. I didn’t stop, the entire ceremony. I had an immediate response to her tears of joy. And I could not reign that shizzle in. For the life of me.
On the other end of tears, as a nurse, a midwife, and also a death doula, I’ve witnessed a lot of suffering – I’ve delivered stillborn babies and sat with their mothers as they held them and sobbed. I held their babies myself, kissed them on the forehead and cried.
I’ve seen elders come into the ED after watching their life partner die of a heart attack and holding them in their sadness, now feeling very alone. I’ve sat bedside with grieving families as a beloved family member was taking their last breath. I’ve heard horrifying war stories working in refugee camps and working at community clinics serving the underserved, often living in horrible conditions in violent and fear-ridden environments.
I found that what drew me to this kind of work was a natural inclination towards compassion… yet it seemed that’s the very thing that made the work so hard.
I think I had a misunderstanding of the difference between empathy and compassion, as well as not having the skills for true self-care.
It felt like, “I care too much.”
But really, it was because I was overidentifying with the suffering I was witnessing. It wasn’t compassion that was overwhelming me at the time. It was unprotected empathy. Unchecked empathy.
I’m not alone. It turns out a lot of people mistake empathy for compassion. So that’s what I want to clear up today.
Empathy is understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. It can even involve feeling that same feeling within ourselves.
Compassion is witnessing suffering and wanting to do something about it. Compassion, in the classical teachings of the Buddhist tradition, is often described as “the heart that trembles in the face of suffering.” And then wanting to do something about it.
It comes out of one’s need or feeling to help someone else.
So empathy sparks compassion and compassion builds empathy.
Empathy is a gateway to compassion. We identify with another person’s feelings – that’s empathy. Then, we’re motivated to take action, maybe even massive action, and do something, which is compassion.
With empathy, while we may experience and highly relate to the suffering of others, we might not actually do something to help.
With compassion, we take a step away from the emotion we’re feeling with empathy and want to take action.
We ask ourselves, “‘How can I help?”
Another way we can look at it is empathy is more of an automatic feeling and compassion is manifested in intentional action.
They are different and complementary. When one is absent from the other, it can cause imbalance.
Empathy without compassion becomes something that can incapacitate us and also cause more problems than it helps with.
So recognizing the differences between compassion and empathy is important as we try to cultivate more compassion and mindfulness – staying fully present with the suffering we might bear witness to. When we can’t stay present with the suffering because it becomes too much to bear, we can numb out. Burn out. Check out.
Here are some ways we can cultivate more compassion and compassionate action vs empathy, which can be overwhelming.
// Be aware of the differences between empathy and compassion, which I discussed above, and knowing which one we are in. When we have felt the empathy, we check in to how it sparks compassion and then reflect on how we can take effective action to help – and then we do it.
// Intentionally have a deliberate response instead of going with what feels like a more impulsive emotional response. Empathy is more reactive. Compassion is more… deliberate.
Empathy originates in the emotion centers of the brain, so empathetic feelings, thoughts, actions (including the decisions we make) are generated from this less conscious level, so we are less aware and therefore less intentional about those decisions.
Compassion is considered to be more deliberate because it originates in the cognitive centers of our brain. Compassionate feelings, thoughts, and actions (including decisions) pass through filters in a more conscious, mindful way. We are more likely to reflect on the situation, deliberate our options, and maybe even improve on any decisions we arrive at. We are able to be more present with suffering from a place of compassion, so we won’t tune it out or try to escape.
// Cultivate equanimity. Something I didn’t know before was that while empathy strongly relates to the brain’s tendency to identify with others’ emotions, it’s particularly cued to do so with those who are close to us. This may seem benign (“well.. of course it’s easier to identify with those closer to me”) but the issue with this is that this makes it more biased. When we tend to empathize moreso with those close to us, those who aren’t close or are different can seem like a threat. So – when unchecked – this is a sneaky way that empathy can actually create more division than unity.
In one extreme, empaths experience that feeling the emotions of others around us without boundaries can have a negative impact on our judgment and potentially lead to bad decisions. On the other end of extreme empathy, it can also fuel aversion to those who are different from us. Isn’t that wild to think about?
I feel like Buddha was way ahead of the game with this one. Upekkhā in Pali means equanimity.
True equanimity isn’t indifference towards others. It’s engagement in a way that’s balanced with all aspects of life, and all beings. It’s opening to all of life in a balanced way and with a calm mind, accepting all aspects – the joyful and sorrowful, the abundance and scarcity. The loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable. It eliminates clinging and aversion.
// Engage in massive action, not passive action.
Compassion eventually manifests as doing something. As a result, too much empathy without compassion can lead to feeling stuck. We end up just replaying the scenes of suffering over and over in our heads, which is a type of passive action (thinking about it, worrying about it, feeling bad about it). This doesn’t help and can even lead to depressive symptoms.
When we take massive action from a place of compassion, we are creating a result – doing something to change the situation. Our empathy is turned into compassion and then into action.
We can be sure to check our intention too – put ourselves in their shoes. Considering their reality how can we be of benefit in this situation?
// Practice self-care and self-compassion
As time goes on, overidentifying with another’s emotions can be exhausting. We’re also less likely to care for ourselves and our own emotional well-being because we don’t have enough energy left to do so.
Being regularly bombarded with the negative emotions and experiences of someone else can drain our mental resources and take a toll on our psychological health.
On the other hand, compassion is intentional and focused on solutions. Of course, there can be an extreme of compassion as well, where we want just to keep doing and doing and doing to help without taking a break for self-care and practicing self-compassion. This is compassion fatigue.
The oxygen mask analogy is a good one. We need to put our own mask on before helping others with theirs. We’re no good to others passed out. Similarly, we can’t give to others what we don’t have ourselves and that’s where self-compassion comes in.
Self-compassion also includes self-care, like getting to bed on time, taking breaks throughout the day and not holing your pee for 12 hours (I know you nurses out there who do that!). It includes taking vacations – ALL of your vacation days – and eating well and moving your body in the way it loves. It includes also doing the internal work to redirect that inner mean girl and give her a new job that’s more helpful.
// Have a mindfulness practice. One of the most important insights from empathy and compassion research is that having a regular mindfulness practice – or another contemplative practice – is one of the best paths for cultivating compassion. Mindfulness is awareness without judgment. It’s maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, through a gentle, nurturing lens. In this way, mindfulness helps us be more self-aware, more intentional and more deliberate…thoughtful.
// Try a Tonglen practice. This practice, taught to me by Geshe Tsultim Gyeltsen, is an ancient meditation practice that helps to cultivate compassion. It has helped me heal so many relationships – and well as help me have more compassion for myself. This practice can be life-changing. It’s also known as “taking and sending,” and it flips our usual default mode of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure in that motivational triad you’ve heard me speak of so often. In Tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. Through this, we start to let go of selfishness, and not in a let-people-walk-all-over-me kind of way. Rather, we begin to feel authentic love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others.
I hope that clears some things up for you so that you don’t feel extreme empathy in a way that shuts you down. We want to love and love and love and not have our hearts close down, and that is a true skill that you can learn. So please do practice these things above. Just pick one of them and give it a go!
In this Episode you’ll learn:
// How to prevent being overwhelmed by suffering and world events
// When empathy can actually create division instead of bring us closer
// The difference between compassion and empathy – and why we need both
// Why overempathizing can keep us stuck and even lead to depressive symptoms
// How to increase compassion to build resilience
// What compassion fatigue is & how to overcome it
// Check out Episode 51: Self-Compassion
// Listen to Ana’s Guided Tonglen Meditation here
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