What is the difference between compassion and empathy. For a long time I thought the two were interchangeable. That is until I read A Force For Good, the articulation of the Dalai Lama’s vision of the world by Daniel Goleman.
A quick google search will offer them up practically as synonyms. The primary difference is that compassion must involve action. To have empathy is to put yourself in someone else’s shoes; to have compassion is to do something to relieve another person’s suffering.
Tania Singer and Mathieu Ricard, from the Max Planck Institute, study the effects of practicing empathy versus compassion on our psyche. They have found when we simply tune into the suffering of another person, when we empathise, our brain reacts by feeling pain and anguish. For example, being shown vivid photos of people in grave distress like car crashes or burn victims. This response can result in empathetic distress, where we take on the suffering for ourselves which can overload us. This manifests in careers like nursing and social workers. Those people are often witness to suffering on a regular basis, triggering our empathetic response. The frequency often leads to chronic anxiety, which builds to emotional exhaustion, and ultimately burnout.
In practicing compassion, feeling warmth and a concern for others, the researchers were treated with surprising results. People were able to view photos of suffering without so much as looking away, thereby staying open to their distress. The brain’s response is one of positivity, marking their attitude for compassion and wishing well for victims. Compassion, therefore, inoculates effectively against empathy distress. The brain activity shows that compassion, caring, builds resiliency instead of burnout.
I’m willing to be that everyone has experienced empathy distress before. I am guilty of it myself. I stopped actively watching the news because of empathy distress. It would be wave after wave of suffering, and I would feel so helpless. I don’t claim to have any answers, but practicing compassion instead of empathy seems like the right direction to start in.