I’ve been blogging about the differences between empathy and compassion, and the pitfalls of empathy.
Recently, I’ve had conversations with several patients, many of whom also who work in the helping professions, to learn more about the appeal of empathy. Remember that empathy is the idea that you are suffering because the other person is suffering. As a result of this, one’s motivation is to “fix” the problems that are causing the other person to suffer so that one does not suffer — in this way, we want to relieve someone else’s suffering so that we also can be relieved of our suffering.
Based on my experiences working with others, it seems that the vast majority of people want to offer advice, change how other people think and feel, and force solutions for others who are suffering because they themselves want to feel better. This is a very interesting perspective on empathy. When I encounter individuals who are practicing this form of “helping,” I emphasize that empathy is actually driven by a warm, loving, and nurturing heart, and encourage empathic people to embrace, if not celebrate, those personality characteristics in themselves, while also inviting them to become more comfortable sitting with other people’s suffering and allowing other people to have their feelings as a way of holding space for the other person’s emotions and honoring his or her experiences. I suggest that instead of trying to “fix” a problem for someone else that they simply validate the other person’s feelings by demonstrating understanding that the other person is suffering without trying to change how the person is feeling, what they are thinking, and how they are reacting. This approach, which is the defining feature of compassion (helping, but not fixing), is not only more effective for helping to relieve someone else’s suffering, but it also prevents burnout among those who are trying to help. Remember that compassion has a clear boundary of where you end and the other person begins. This boundary serves as a protective barrier for becoming fatigued by trying to help too much.
Are you practicing compassion (spirit of helping) or empathy (spirit of fixing) in your daily life?