Empathy or Compassion?

Empathy and compassion are words that sound similar and are frequently used today. What is the difference between them?

Empathy is usually highlighted as a skill that is beneficial for interpersonal relationships. To be able to tune into other person’s feelings. However, is it possible to be too empathetic? Can feeling too deeply the feelings of someone else, for example pain or sorrow, be actually harmful for us?

Empathetic people can almost literally feel the pain of another person. Due to “mirroring neurons” empathy arises more or less automatically when we see someone else suffer. For example, if you saw me getting my finger squashed in the door, many of you would literally feel my pain. It works the same way when someone cries or is sad.

It is important to mention that empathy arises also with positive feelings, for example when we see someone’s joy or happiness, our experience often mirrors it. However, in this article I would like to focus on empathy in difficult situations that that many of us have experienced in an increased way recently as a reaction to people experiencing more difficulties in the current pandemic situation.

Empathy often arises already when imagining the suffering of another person – we start to feel it ourselves. Thanks to our imagination we start to feel for example the suffering of people in countries with a high number of coronavirus cases. Or when imagining the economic difficulties of other people we start to feel distressed ourselves.

Can too much empathy harm us?

A short answer is yes.

In principle we need to distinguish between cognitive and emotional empathy. Here we are going to focus on emotional empathy. Many studies have shown that too much empathy can lead to burn out, especially in helping professions (for example doctors, nurses, social workers, etc.)

When we are confronted with suffering and we are too empathetic, it leads us to experience to stress without having emotional or cognitive resources to cope with it. Developing empathy can lead not only to feeling painful and distressing experience of others more deeply but also it can enhance feeling negative feelings as a reaction to common situations in daily life.

According to Professor Paul Bloom from Yale University multiple research studies demonstrate that empathy, even when meant well, can make interpersonal relationships worse. When we are exhausted and close to burn out, we behave to others in a worse way and we are full of prejudice and negative. Simply said, when we are distressed because of suffering of others, we do not have resources to help them.

What can we do about it? Compassion could be an answer

While empathy is directed inwards, compassion contains also an active part directed outwards to help the other person.

While both empathy and compassion have common grounding, which is feeling the feelings of other person, compassion takes a step further – we feel the feelings of another person, we are with what we feel without identifying with it and we make an active action.

How are empathy and compassion different?

Neuroscientists Tania Singer, Olga Klimecki et al. conducted a research comparing empathy and compassion. They compared two groups of people: one group received empathy training and the other one compassion training. This study showed fascinating differences in brain reactions to empathy and compassion training. With empathy, brain regions responsible for emotions and self-awareness were activated. With compassion the brain regions associated with emotions, awareness, registering pain were activated, however also regions associated with learning, decision making and reward.

While the group of people trained in empathy felt discomfort and unpleasantness, the group of people trained in compassion felt positively, they were kinder and more willing to help others.

The research demonstrated that empathy not only caused feeling painful and distressing experience of others more intensively but it also increased the feeling of negative emotions in everyday life. The compassion training and a contrary effect, even though the participants of it were exposed to the same distressing stimuli as the other group.

Compassion as an answer to stressful situation is different from other emotion regulation strategies like suppressing or re-framing and it evokes active decrease of negative effects of emotions. Besides of it it reinforces positive effects.

How does it work?

With active compassion we do not ignore the presence of suffering, neither we try to change our view of unpleasant reality. We acknowledge the negative experience of others and the way we perceive it. It can be also helpful to realize that everyone experiences suffering.

It is important to non-identify yourself with the emotion. It means that we experience the emotion, we acknowledge its presence in its full intensity and at the same time we are detached from it by being aware that we are not the emotion. Mindfulness practice can be very helpful in this.

The next step is an active act to help the other person – already wishing them well can be very effective.

In conclusion

This article does not want by any means to discourage to feel the feelings of other people. Empathy is very beneficial and is a gateway to compassion. It also has its drawbacks though. When feeling too much empathy it is important to take the next steps: to realize what we feel, not to identify with it and to do something that can help the other person. Often a wish is enough.


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