A widely held belief is that we all benefit from having more empathy. The ability to put ourselves in other people’s shoes and our ability to imagine the suffering of others is often regarded as being at the core of humanity.
In recent years, a growing body of literature has found important differences between empathy and compassion. Today we know that empathy and compassion involve different neural pathways. Also, in the case of empathy, “you suffer and therefore I am suffering” whereas compassion occurs from a place of helping: “I’m sorry to hear you are suffering. I’ll try to help you.” With empathy, the boundary between people is blended, meaning it’s not clear where you end and the other person begins — therefore, I need to fix your pain because it’s causing me pain. On the other hand, for compassion there is a clear boundary: I am here and you are over there, and let’s see if I can help you.
That said, it’s not surprising that empathy is more strongly associated with burnout because of the suffering the helper feels when others are suffering; people coming from a place of compassion are not suffering because another person is suffering — they are just there to help if they can. We’ll explore this more in my next blog entry.