What exactly is compassion? Compassion is the feeling that arises when faced with someone who is suffering AND we feel motivated to relieve that suffering. Is it limited, like the money in our bank account? If we give away too much, do we become bankrupt or burned out as a caregiver?
Compassion vs empathy
There is quite a lot of talk about “compassion fatigue” and caregiver burnout. The term compassion fatigue was initially seen as the “cost of caring” or as inevitable when exposed to people who are in pain/are suffering (also known as secondary traumatic stress). Eventually, compassion itself was seen as the actual cause of fatigue. That is, the expression of compassion caused fatigue. What naturally followed is that caregiver fatigue and burnout are often seen as the result of ‘caring too much’. What a bind for caregivers! The notion that feeling and extending compassion to others can be harmful to your own health and wellbeing suggests that the way to prevent burnout is to become protective of this finite resource called compassion. What an irony!
Researchers and psychologists have made important discoveries and distinctions between emotional empathy and compassion. While related, compassion is not the same as empathy. Emotional empathy is our capacity to feel the emotions of another person. Compassion is when these feelings are also accompanied by the desire to help/relieve the suffering (often broadly understood as feeling kindness towards a person). The desire to help is a cognitive thought which seems to protect us from what Roshi Joan Halifax refers to as the “stickiness of suffering.”
As it turns out, feeling compassion isn’t tiring. Compassion isn’t a source of fatigue. There is much about caregiving that can result in fatigue, and even exhaustion, but the culprit isn’t compassion.
Caregiver fatigue and burnout are often misunderstood as the result of ‘caring too much’ instead of the result of certain conditions of caregiving, such as not enough support, the sheer workload of your caregiving, and other factors such as social isolation and neglecting your own health and wellbeing.
Replacing compassion fatigue with empathy fatigue
Some psychologists and neuroscientists have made a compelling case for dropping the term “compassion fatigue” and replacing it with “empathy fatigue.”
Want to hear about some cool research? (Yes, “cool” and “research” are two words that can be used in the same sentence!) Seriously, the difference between empathy and compassion is important for caregivers to understand as it can make the difference between resiliency and burnout. Tania Singer, a neuroscientist, conducted a study of how the brain reacts differently to compassion and empathy. Using MRI scanners, Singer showed that compassion and empathy “are two different phenomena associated with different brain activity patterns.” With empathy, the pain centers of the brain are activated whereas with compassion, the regions of the brain associated with love, motivation, and reward are activated. Wow! This means that when we think of someone we know who may be suffering or in distress and then think of them being relieved of that suffering or distress, our brain’s pathways move from painful empathy to the more rewarding compassion.While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.
So, when we are exposed to people’s suffering, empathy in and of itself serves neither the person we are caring for nor ourselves as caregivers. This sure makes sense. How can we really help someone if we are feeling the same way? If unchecked, emotional empathy can lead to caregiver burnout. If we get consumed by someone else’s feelings, there is a greater likelihood of neglecting our own feelings and needs, which is a classic caregiver risk. How do we keep our empathy in check? By moving from empathy to compassion. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to helpWhile empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help. While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.
Moving from empathy to compassion
Compassion is a protective buffer from the negative effects of feeling the suffering of others (or empathy). In this way, it is more accurate to say that caregiver burnout may be an outcome of caring when it is not joined with compassion. And it isn’t just compassion for others which is important and valuable. Self-compassion is equally valuable and important. Self-compassion builds emotional resilience. The Dalai Lama shared the wisdom of practicing compassion for self and others by saying:
“If you want others to be happy, practice compassion.
If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Self-compassion leads to feeling more energized, happy, and grateful or what psychologist Kristin Neff calls “compassion satisfaction.” Being a caregiver can be very hard, especially when we are in the virtual constant presence of someone who is suffering/in pain. If we are compassionate towards ourselves as well as the one we are caring for, we are more likely to take (better) care of ourselves. The self-care drum for caregivers can never be beat enough!
You may be wondering: How exactly do I do this? How do I shift from empathy to compassion? The good news is that compassion can be learned. Click here for a 15 minute guided meditation to assist in (further) cultivating compassion for others from Emma Seppala, Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track.
How self-compassionate are you? Click here for a link to a self-compassion test created by the self-compassion expert, Dr. Kristin Neff. Explore her website for more self-compassion exercises and information. Why? Because we could all use a little (or a lot!) more self-compassion.
What is especially appealing about compassion practices, for self and others, is that you do not have to find more time in your day for these practices. Time is a precious commodity for caregivers. This is an effective way to practice self-care right in the moment and in the presence of the person you are caring for.