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Compassion vs Empathy: Practice Both to Cope with Suffering (But One is Superior!)

Since human suffering is so hard to witness, I encourage you to think about how compassion vs empathy is a life-changer in learning to cope with suffering.“Compassion is the keen awareness of the interdependence of all things.” ~ Thomas Merton

We live in a world full of human suffering. Just seeing one image of a starving child can stay with you for a lifetime; it tears your heart apart every time you think about it. That’s why many choose to avoid news programs altogether, because they can’t take the pain of seeing and hearing all the suffering. It puts them into empathy overload or empathy burnout. As a result, a person might even tend toward emotional shutdown, in order to cope, by pretending suffering doesn’t exist. It’s easier to not see, not hear, not think about any suffering. However, I encourage you to think about how understanding the difference of compassion vs empathy can be a life-changer in how you cope with suffering.

We can have empathy and compassion under happy circumstances, which allows us to join in, without feelings of envy or jealousy. However, in this consideration of human suffering, the difference between compassion and empathy is: 

  • Feeling another person’s pain is empathy. 
  • Recognizing their pain and having the cognitive and emotional resources to help is compassion.

Or as the Dalai Lama so succinctly put it, “Compassion is the wish to see others free from suffering.” I find it fascinating that research indicates compassion and empathy stimulate different regions of the brain and that compassion can combat empathetic distress. For example, neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki studied two groups —  one trained to first practice empathy and subsequently trained to practice compassion. The other was a control group, which received memory training. Their findings?

In response to videos depicting human suffering, empathy training increased negative affect and brain activation in anterior insula (linked to emotion and self-awareness) and anterior midcingulate cortex (linked to emotion and consciousness) — brain regions previously associated with empathy for pain. 

In contrast, subsequent compassion training reversed the increase in negative affect and augmented self-reports of positive affect. In addition, compassion training increased activations in a non-overlapping brain network spanning ventral striatum (connected to the reward system), pregenual anterior cingulate cortex and medial orbitofrontal cortex (connected to learning and reward in decision-making). They concluded that training in compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience.

This neuroscience shows us why empathy can be so uncomfortable. You hurt without knowing how to stop the hurt. Compassion, on the other hand, moves you to use the skills you have to help, which makes you feel better. 

How do you elevate your emotional response to compassion?

1. Practice mindfulness. It helps you stop and become fully present in the moment. Use it in each of the following steps towards helping someone in need:

  • Notice and become awareness of another’s suffering and pain. (sympathy)
  • Become emotionally moved by their suffering and pain. (empathy)
  • Create a strong desire to relieve their suffering and pain. (compassion)
  • Look for ways to actively help relieve that suffering. (compassion)

2. Deep breathing. Distressing events activates the fight-flight response, causing breathing to become fast and shallow, which increases anxiety and emotional response. Slow, steady deep breathing activates the vagus nerve, which controls the parasympathetic nervous system and activates the relaxation response. Hence deep breathing calms you, so you can think rationally.  

3. Stay grounded and centered. Rather than getting caught up in their experience, practice the skills that help you retain control of your mental and emotional self. External forces shouldn’t be able to change who you are. Be very intentional and deliberate about choosing your calm state. Develop a strong awareness of how your emotions create body sensations. Limit your exposure to negativity.

4. Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation. This daily, 15-minute guided meditation was developed by researcher Emma Seppala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education. It strengthens your feelings of kindness and connection with others, by deliberately wishing happiness, health and freedom to yourself, your loved ones, and people you feel neutral about or even dislike. It increases your emotional resilience and meaningful social connections, which can help you respond to challenges with compassion. 

5. Remember that tiny acts of compassion can have big impacts. Often, just the act of truly listening and connecting, without judgment, can be very helpful to the sufferer, because we all need to be truly seen and heard.

Compassion and empathy are important aspects of everyone’s emotional development. We can make the world a better place by honing our personal skills in these areas. Are there emotional competencies you’d like to enhance? I’d love to partner with you to help you make a plan that gets results. Please contact me and schedule an “Unlocking Your Potential” 30-minute complimentary consultation (in-person, by phone or via Skype). Let’s talk about the steps you can take to get the best results.


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