Empathy vs Compassion; an important difference

Empathy is the kindling, but compassion is the long burning wood stoking the fire of real change.

The first time I learned that there was a difference between empathy and compassion was in Sharon Salzberg’s book, Real Change, where she talked about how empathy can drain social justice fighters and they have to be careful not to burn out.

This resonated strongly with me as someone who has felt paralyzed by the pain of the world. It can be completely overwhelming to think too hard about all of the suffering each and every person experiences throughout their lifetime, with some people enduring the unthinkable.

As a classic over-thinker, I would hear of someone’s pain or focus on my own past or future pain, and not just think about it, but instantly feel it as if it was happening to me in the moment. My heart rate would go up, my hands would sweat, and my thoughts would start swirling. The closer the person was to me, the more intense these physical sensations were. It left me ineffective and overwhelmed with emotion causing me to not think straight for a period of time. I still struggle with this common phenomenon from time to time, but a key shift in the way I think about caring for myself and others helped so much.

While some empathy is an important human trait that helps us help each other, it’s not sustainable in the long run and will quickly drain you, both emotionally and physically.

Empathy is the short spark that should temporarily be used to stoke the long burning fire of human connection.

I am currently reading the incredible balm of a book, The Book of Joy, by Douglas Abrams and his interviews with His Holiness Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. There’s an entire chapter on the concept of compassion and its crucial role in cultivating joy for ourselves and others.

“A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” – the Dalai Lama

The book points out how we often fear compassion because we’re afraid of experiencing the suffering in the same way others are. It involves an open heart, vulnerability and helplessness that can be very painful. Empathy plays an important role in understanding what others are going through and often times is very painful.

But one of the important differences between compassion and empathy is while both involve feeling what the other person is feeling to an extent, compassion is a more empowered emotion where we strive to better the suffering person’s situation whether it’s through meditation, prayer, or service. It’s a calmer, wiser emotion that is much more effective in the long run.

Compassion truly is an emotion to cultivate for the long haul. Compassion uses automatic feelings of caring but harnesses them into a constructive method of helping the ones suffering. Empathy can wear you out, and it did wear me out. It can fuel feelings of guilt and shame along with freezing us within inaction. Empathy causes us to take on other’s pain and feel it to the core, literally raising our stress hormones and causing fear.

Compassion on the other hand spurs us into action. It can literally induce the “feel-good” hormones which are good for our well-being. Compassion is based in love and genuine care for our fellow humans. It requires equanimity, and a calm & clear headed view of the situation. It encourages the problem solving parts of our brain and allows decision making to be made on firmer ground and not from the trembling intensity of empathy.

It seems like a minor difference, but it can be night and day when you are trying to help someone in pain or affect meaningful change. Physically feeling the pain someone is feeling in short amounts can be a useful way to connect with others and even understand them better, but too many of us get stuck in this ache we feel for the suffering or we fear it so much that we shy away from it completely.

A subtle shift in focus from aching and a desperate desire to control a situation to a calmer, more loving approach to helping others will keep you energized and focused and that is the most effective way to solve the world’s problems.

Let me know what you think about the differences between empathy and compassion.

For more quick tips on living a more mindful life visit my page, MindfulnessIdeas.com .


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