The Rapidian

How Empathy and Compassion Can Change Your World for the Better

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Too often, people speak about sympathy, empathy, and compassion, as if these three words are synonymous. They are quite different, in fact, and affect us in different ways.

Sympathy is very intellectual. We think to ourselves, "it's so sad that such-and-such happened," but we don't process the emotion any more deeply than that. This can be a necessary distancing strategy; for example, a parent might find empathizing with someone who lost their child too upsetting, and be unable to truly experience those feelings with the person who has suffered a loss.

Sometimes, sympathy veers into pity, when all that someone can see is the sadness or pain that someone else is seeing, instead of being able to acknowledge the richness of their human experience. Being pitied is dehumanizing, and you should be careful to avoid pitying people if you possibly can.

Empathy is sympathy without the intellectual distance. For example, when you visit a friend who has lost a loved one, you might feel sad as well, cry with them, or share stories of the person they've lost. You're not just saying that it's sad that the person lost someone, you're sharing that loss with them.

Empathy can veer too far, however, if your experienced emotions begin to overwhelm and decenter the person who has actually experienced grief. Keep in mind Ring Theory: compassion in, venting out. Marsha Lucas on Psychology Today also warns about the possibility of empathy slipping into co-dependence, where you are so enmeshed in someone else's emotional response to something that you forget your own.

Compassion, meanwhile, is empathy in action. Behaving in a compassionate way can be one of the most difficult tasks we face, interestingly. It requires that we empathize with someone, share their pain, and then act in a way that at least acknowledges, and possible relieves, their pain.

If you want to show compassion to someone, here are some tips to make that happen:

  • Really, truly listen to what they're saying. Give them all of your attention. Turn off your cell phone, focus on them visually, pay attention to them with all of your senses. Don't just hear their words, but also watch their body language and listen to their tone. Don't interrupt, but do make signs that you are listening, like nodding.
  • Don't argue with their experience. One of the most hurtful things you can say to someone who is looking for compassion is that their emotions are wrong. Trust that what they're saying is true for them, and proceed accordingly, even if you don't entirely understand why they feel what they feel.
  • Ask questions. Proceed carefully, but asking questions can be a great way to show that you are actively listening, and trying to understand. It's good to be deferential; instead of saying "Why did that?" you might ask "I'm trying to understand, would you be willing to talk about why you made that choice?"
  • Offer assistance. Don't assume that you know how to help someone with a difficult situation. Ask "How can I support you with this?" or "What can I do to help?" If the person offers you a way to help, don't argue with them. Trust that they know their situation better than they do. All too often, people who are trying to ally or advocate for others center their needs or comfort over the person that they're trying to help, which doesn't actually help anyone.

Looking to create a more compassionate world overview for yourself? Many sources, such as Christopher Bergland at Psychology Today recommend mindfulness meditation as a way to gain more control over our own unconscious emotions, so that we can be more compassionate with others. While other types of meditation look to focus on a particular mantra or scripture, mindfulness meditation teaches us to be still, focus on our breathing, and notice our emotions as they arise. With regular practice, scientists have observed through functional MRI testing that our brains actually rewire themselves to become more peaceful and calm in the face of upsetting or stressful situations, allowing us to respond with greater compassion and less panic.

Learning to be compassionate to those we love, and then gradually to the entire world, has the potential to change everything about the world we live in. Have you experienced a moment of great compassion in your life? Tell us in the comments!

About the author

Wilma Derksen

Winnipeg Therapist

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