Empathy versus Compasion

As a clinical psychologist, I’m often asked by people how it is that I can sit with so much difficulty and suffering. I first reassure these folks that my day is hardly non-stop heaviness. I tend to truly enjoy the people I work with and my day is filled with connection, warmth, and laughter.

But of course life is hard and people come into my practice because they’re needing help with their confusion or their pain. And much of a psychotherapist’s job is being with suffering in ways that are helpful. The way in which I’ve learned to be with the difficulties in my clients’ lives has been tremendously useful in my own life, and I think offers some direction on how we might learn to be with each other generally, and with ourselves.

The psychologist Paul Bloom makes an important distinction between empathy and compassion. Bloom discusses several problems with empathy, which involves feeling within ourselves what someone else is feeling. For one, empathy doesn’t always leave us in the best position to offer someone help. If we too are feeling what is being felt by the other, we might find ourselves in the same need of comfort and wisdom, and without the space required to offer someone the qualities or actions that are beyond their own reach. And even more troublingly, we tend to feel empathy to varying degrees depending upon how like us the person before us is: our child’s sadness can be felt as our own; our neighbor’s grief at losing her house to a fire can be experienced in our own chest. Studies have demonstrated that the suffering of someone who looks unlike us elicits an empathy far less visceral. There are obvious moral implications for this differentiation in empathy, as it’s likely to promote a kind of tribalism that furthers inequality and oppression.

Compassion on the other hand is not the visceral mirroring of another’s experience, but rather a position one might take in response to suffering. To be compassionate is to relate to the suffering of another with kindness, understanding, wisdom. One need not experience the pain of another to occupy a place of compassion. In fact, to be in a position of true compassion, where space can be held for another, something other than the full emotional joining of empathy is demanded.

As a psychologist, if I were to experience full empathy all day, I would be burned out within the month. But compassion, on the other hand, is a true joy to experience. It demands and promotes a certain kind of strength – of heart, of mind, of character.

What we are after, of course, is the occupation of this position both towards others and towards ourselves. We are after this position because it contains love and promotes effective response. We are after this position because it is a more joyful and peaceful way to live. To relate to our own suffering with compassion – that is, to experience self-compassion – necessitates that we cultivate a capacity to relate to ourselves with love, a surprisingly elusive thing to do.

Contrasted with empathy, which again is a kind of unbounded joining, self-compassion also demands the occupation of a position that is in some sense outside of our own suffering. That is, to be in a state of self-compassion we must hold ourselves as we might most compassionately hold another – seeing our own suffering, understanding it, caring about it, but offering too a wider perspective and faith in something other than pain. To do so allows us to create some space around our distress, so that rather than being in the full grip of it, lost in its scary stories, we might be able to offer ourselves a loving reassurance that this is human, this is part of living, this too shall pass.