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  • Writer's pictureEve Kagan

Empathy vs. Compassion

"Compassion, it really opens a whole new door to the way of being in the world."

~ Dr. Thupten Jinpa

Empathy, the ability to feel what another is feeling, is an essential skill. Our relationships benefit greatly when we are able to understand how another person is responding emotionally. And yet, when we take on the suffering of others we may find ourselves overwhelmed by distress so much so that we burn out and shut down. When we experience this empathic distress we tend to withdraw from the relationship rather than invest in it.

How do we find resonance in our relationships without the burn-out of empathic distress?

Empathy is the ability to feel with another. Empathy has the capacity to stop us in out tracks: when we take in and take on the suffering of another we may find ourselves stuck in a state of overwhelm, paralysis, or disengagement. According to the neuroscience (hyperlinks below to nerd out with me!), empathy activates parts of the brain that stimulate our own nervous system to mirror that of the other. This is all glorious when it comes to shared joy, however it can turn us against ourselves and others when it comes to shared pain. Sharing pain can stimulate stress, distress, and dysregulation. While we don't want to shut off our capacity to feel the pain of those we care for, we want to be able to move forward with that pain towards something new. This is where compassion enters.

Compassion is the ability to feel for another. In essence, compassion is empathy + motivation. Compassion activates not only our feeling of concern and care for the other, but a motivation to help end their suffering. If we get stuck in the pain of another we may naturally withdraw or avoid to protect ourselves, or become overwhelmed by our own feelings of despair and defeat. Compassion has the active and transformative component essential to keep us connected. Neuroscience studies show that compassion activates the motivation center of the brain allowing movement rather than paralysis or withdrawal. Compassion has a generative quality: we recognize and understand the suffering of another and then adopt a motivation to help. Depending on circumstances, we may not always have the capacity to help in real life, however the simple act of generating a wish to end suffering shifts our state of being. When we practice compassion we have the ability to act from love and connection. Compassion shifts us from embodying the distress of another into a space of hopefulness, responsiveness, and readiness to generate relief.

How do we activate compassion?

Compassion is a practice: the more we practice, the more we progress. I like to think of it like flexing and strengthening the muscles of the heart to generate love that is free from distress.

The following exercise may help you in the process of exploring and generating compassion.

Compassion Training

I invite you to take a moment to slow down.

Maybe close your eyes or soften your gaze to turn your attention inward.

Maybe notice your breath, your feet on the floor, your body...

I invite you to place a hand over your heart.

I invite you to notice with each inhale your heart expands and uplifts and with each exhale your heart softens and relaxes.

I invite you to bring to mind someone you care for deeply who is suffering.

I invite you to notice what happens in your own body as you recognize their pain.

I invite you to notice the love you have for this person in your heart.

I invite you now to generate a simple compassionate wish for this person:

~May you feel at peace.

~May you find connection.

~May you find healing.

~May you feel joy.

~May you hold on to hope

~May you be free of suffering

I invite you to allow this tenderness to express itself, to allow the hope for the end of their suffering to fill your heart.

I invite you to notice what happens in your own body as you silently send this wish to the person you love.

When it feels right, slowly and gently return your awareness to the space around you.

I hope this exploration of empathy and compassion allows you to find peace within your own heart and share it with others.

For more information on the neuroscience of empathy and compassion, visit here.

For more information on compassion training, visit here.

For more information about therapy with Eve, visit here.

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