Empathy v. Compassion. Yup, There's a Difference.

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During my masters program in mental health counseling I spent two years doing therapy with teens at a charter school designed for kids who had more or less been thrown out of more traditional schools. Most of them were living in poverty. Many of them with drug addicted parents. I spent a bunch of weekends worrying one or another of my kids would get arrested, overdose, or attempt suicide before Monday morning.

About halfway through the second year, I started to show classic symptoms of burnout – emotional and mental exhaustion, sleep disturbance, a kind of existential confusion.

I'd made a classic mistake, one that many new therapists make – I was lost in a sort of never-ending emotional resonance with every one of my clients. Whatever they were feeling, that's what I felt.

At the time, I'd never heard of the distinction between empathy and compassion. And I had no idea, therefore, how to make the shift in my own experience.

Then I ran into Tania Singer’s research. Tania is a neuroscientist at the Max Planck Institute. Working with Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk with tens of thousands of hours of meditation practice under his belt (and a PhD in molecular biology), she's used advanced neuroimaging technology to tease out the differences between two related but distinct emotional/cognitive landscapes.

The first she calls empathy. Empathy, according to Tania, is our human capacity to feel another's pain. When someone stubs their toe, we flinch. When someone's dear one dies, we feel sad. This imaginative capacity allows humans to develop rich and complex relationships, communities of mutual concern.

Downside: If we're constantly surrounded by suffering, as helping professionals often are, we can start to feel as though we, ourselves, are stuck in a continual state of pain and distress.

Imagine, for instance, a nurse on a burn unit who remains in a constant state of empathy. Every time she meets a new burn victim, she feels as though she herself has been burned. The burn victims heal and move on with their lives. But, week by week, the nurse remains in the environment that is triggering her empathic response. It's like she's being burned again and again.

Empathy, then, can be a real downer.

Compassion, on the other hand, can never be a downer. Because compassion, according to Matthieu and Tania, contains within it a simple and profoundly uplifting intention – the wish that those we care for be free of their suffering. So, instead of soaking in empathic distress, we stand in this wish, encapsulated in the simple phrase, "May you be free from your suffering."

It seems simple. Simplistic, even. How can a single phrase, the slightest nudge into a more uplifted mental posture, help us stay open, energized, and engaged? 

But this shift has been game changing for me.  

Now, when I encounter a suffering client – when someone tells me about their hopelessness, their addiction, their trauma – I still feel their pain. It resonates with me. But bigger than their pain is my focus on what I can do for them. I am feeling their difficulty just enough to understand what's happening, and the rest of my heart/mind is focused on the mental and emotional stance of, "May you be free from your suffering" and "What small little thing can I do to help?"

Rather than feeling weighed down by difficulty, I feel uplifted by the possibility that I might do something useful – even if it’s something small. And what I actually feel for them is a kind of energized, proactive love. I feel connected but undaunted.

Of course, most of us don’t spend our lives sitting with suicidal teens or victims of complex trauma. But we all – every one of us – are confronted with pain and suffering and distress every day. Our friends lose loved ones. Our children get bullied. Or we just happen to pick up the newspaper.

 How will we meet all these inevitable ups and downs?

It’s not easy. But the wonderful news is that the mind and heart can be trained. Check out, for example, Devon’s meditation Compassionate Presence to Feelings. Or her Caring Moment practice. And see if you can start to nudge your heart and mind toward greater well-being, while continuing to engage with the tough stuff of the world.

Craig Hase