Compassion, Not Empathy

In The Yes Brain, Daniel Siegel uses the acronym B.R.I.E. to stand for Balance, Resiliency, Insight, and Empathy. He says these are the skills that we need in order to thrive. His passion for empathy is echoed by other thought leaders in the parenting landscape.

While we often group sympathy, empathy, compassion, and sometimes even pity into one category, they are different emotions that behave differently in the brain.

When we talk about empathy, we are talking about the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. This is the mirror in the brain. When we empathize, we feel someone else’s emotions. When they do MRI scans of people who are trained and asked to empathize, they see the people processing pain. Regions of the brain associated with negative experience light up. This is empathy. We feel with the person.

When we are feeling compassionate, we are seeing people’s emotions, not feeling them. In MRI scans of people who were asked and trained to practice compassion, they see the person experiencing maternal love and decision making. Regions of the brain associated with positive experience light up. This is compassion. We feel for the person.

(You can read more about these studies from the original meditator who inspired them here.)

The part of our brain associated with decision making is the part that studies suggest gets more robust through mindfulness meditation.

In Buddhism, compassion is called karuna. The Buddha warned that there is such a thing as too much empathy (sentimental compassion), but not too much compassion (great compassion).

With empathy, we burn out easily. Participants in the studies mentioned above felt exhausted after empathizing. Feeling others emotions compels us to eventually shut down. We need to regenerate and we do it by cutting off connection with others.

In compassion, we do not burn out. We feel regenerated by the experience because we are feeling positive emotions towards the person instead of negative ones with the person.

Empathy is draining and calls us to do nothing. Compassion is uplifting, pro-social, and compels us to action.

Ajahn Brahm, an excellent public speaker who I highly recommend and from whom I have gained a large chunk of my insights on Buddhism, has an excellent metaphor for how we need to react to aiding others and meeting them in their emotions.

We are dustbins. All of the tough things that our children feel get swept into us. The anger, hurt, anxiety, grief. Our children need our help processing these emotions.

As they get older, they will be able to manage more of them themselves, and will need us less. As newborns, we take all of their emotions and help them to cope. As they get older, they can may suckle their hand in an effort to soothe themselves in certain situations. Older still, they’ll learn how to handle situations with tantrums to get all of their big feelings out. Soon after, they’ll only whine. Eventually, they will know how to talk out or write out their feelings and barely need you at all.

But for now, we are dustbins.

We need to be dustbins with a big hole in the bottom. This will allow us to help others, to be dumped into and onto, without filling ourselves up. We need clear minds to help them solve the problems; not ones cluttered with their emotions and our own.

If we focus on compassion instead of empathy then we will be more effective leaders. In the book, The Mind of a Leader, Hougaard and Carter compile research which shows that leaders who practice empathy get burn out and make decisions that work for the short term in order to relieve themselves, while leaders who practice compassion are able to keep their heads on straight and focus on what need to be done in the long-term.

Focusing on the long term means focusing on our children’s needs, not on their wants. That is what true compassion and true leadership are.

1 thought on “Compassion, Not Empathy

  1. Pingback: Metta | Stop running on autopilot.

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