Self Expression Magazine

Empathy Hurts, Compassion Affirms

Posted on the 24 November 2012 by Macnelliebus1 @macnelliebus

The one place you really learn about empathy and compassion is at an Empathy & Compassion in Society conference.  I’d always been slightly puzzled by my own difficulties with empathy.  I noticed that when a friend told me about a relationship difficulty, for example, my attention went, not to the person in front of me, but to the pain of the person not in the room.

One of the things I learned was the difference between empathy and compassion.  There were various definitions used by different speakers. As best I can understand it empathy is the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, to feel or know what they are feeling and compassion is a more active emotion, coupling concern for suffering with an action or impetus to relieve it.

Both empathy and compassion can be taught.

Meditation (particularly the Buddhist metta or loving-kindness type) was mentioned often as an effective route for cultivating compassion.  Mary Gordon spoke about her Roots of Empathy programme which teaches children empathy in primary schools.  I was interested in her comment that the empathy sessions were entirely free of praise and tick boxing or grading.  It was about the experience.  As a result the quieter children and the ones more likely to be bullied found a voice.  Where was this type of education when I was at school?  We are now needing to retrain our healthcare professionals in “compassionate presence“.  By the time most doctors qualify they are so closely guarded of their reactions to suffering that both they and their patients have poorer quality interactions.

The revelation to me was recent research by Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer.   In Olga’s presentation she explained that empathy can go one of two ways.  Either it can move to compassion, which brain scans (and reported experience) show light up the love or positive emotion feeling parts of the brain.  Or we can move to personal distress.  Empathy can hurt.  The good news is that compassion training can quite quickly convert the painful empathy response into the life affirming compassionate response.  The brain scans prove it.

It’s a beautiful and hopeful message.


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