Why Compassion Is More Important Than Empathy

Let’s start with the differences between compassion and empathy.

I always felt sorry for anybody that was homeless and suffering. I felt like I could feel what they were feeling.

I had empathy for them.

But what difference did that make?

I wouldn’t donate because I thought they would spend the money on alcohol. I thought the system should help them. Or the illusion that they wanted to be homeless and it was a lifestyle choice. This is certainly not the case, and if it is it is extremely rare I have later found out.

Then during my 30s I started seeing it a little different. I suddenly started seeing a homeless person and the story behind the person. I realised I could be like them at a couple of turns. I realised I had addictions that I struggle with just the same as them. My addiction to watch Netflix is not very different to their addiction to say alcohol. They use it to better their lives in that moment and to avoid what they are going through. Who am I to judge? We are all sinners, and if we think we are not that we are not looking deeply within ourselves.

And yes this is still empathy, but the difference is that I turned into compassion. And I would donate, and I wouldn’t stop to ask whether they would spend that £10 on alcohol or not. If that was the only way that could keep them warm and help them through the night, who was I to judge them.

Was it the best way to help them? Probably not. But it certainly is better than just feeling what they’re feeling, and then turning it around onto ourselves and thinking that we can do it, so why can they not.

What is compassion?

Compassion is the feeling of wanting to help and alleviate the suffering of others. It is a combination of feelings, including empathy, a sense of connection to others, and a drive to take action to help. Compassion is an emotion that can motivate people to take action to help others, whether that’s through volunteering, donating money to a charity, or simply offering a kind word or gesture to someone in need. Additionally, Compassion is also considered as one of the essential qualities of a good human being, as it is not only good for the person who is suffering but also for the person who is showing compassion.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. It is the cognitive and emotional ability to be able to put oneself in another person’s shoes and understand their perspective. Empathy allows one to recognize, understand, and respond to the emotional states of others, it could be joy, sadness, frustration, and more. Empathy is considered as a key ability for emotional intelligence and is essential for building and maintaining healthy relationships, as it allows one to connect with others on a deeper level. Empathy can be categorized in two types; emotional and cognitive empathy. Emotional empathy is the ability to experience the same emotions as the other person, cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of the other person without necessarily feeling the same emotions.

What does unhealthy empathy look like?

Unhealthy empathy, also known as “empathic distress,” can occur when a person becomes overwhelmed by the emotions of others. This can happen when someone has a hard time distinguishing between their own emotions and the emotions of others, and as a result, they may become emotionally exhausted and unable to function effectively. Some signs of unhealthy empathy include:

  • Taking on the emotional burdens of others to the point of neglecting one’s own needs and well-being.
  • Being unable to disconnect from the emotions of others even when it is no longer necessary or helpful to do so.
  • Having a hard time setting boundaries and saying “no” to others who want emotional support.
  • Experiencing physical and emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being overwhelmed by the emotions of others.

Unhealthy empathy can lead to burnout and emotional exhaustion, so it is important to learn how to set boundaries and take care of oneself. It can be beneficial to practice self-care activities and develop emotional regulation skills, such as mindfulness, meditation and learning to validate and express one’s own feelings.

How would a person know if they suffer from unhealthy empathy?

A person may know they are suffering from unhealthy empathy if they experience the following:

  • Neglecting their own needs and well-being while trying to help others.
  • Being unable to disconnect from the emotions of others even when it is no longer necessary or helpful to do so.
  • Difficulty in setting boundaries and saying “no” to others who want emotional support.
  • Physical and emotional symptoms such as anxiety, depression, or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of being overwhelmed by the emotions of others.

It’s important to note that being empathetic is a positive trait but when it starts to affect one’s well-being and ability to function, it’s important to seek help and start learning how to practice self-care and establish healthy boundaries.

So how do you develop healthy empathy?

Developing healthy empathy involves a combination of developing emotional intelligence, setting boundaries, and practicing self-care. Here are a few steps that can help:

  1. Learn to recognize and understand your own emotions: This will help you understand how your emotions affect your thoughts, behaviors, and reactions to others.
  2. Practice mindfulness and emotional regulation: Mindfulness practices such as meditation, yoga, and journaling can help you become more aware of your emotions and learn to manage them in a healthy way.
  3. Learn to set boundaries: It’s important to establish clear and healthy boundaries to protect your own well-being. This means learning to say “no” to requests that are not feasible or would leave you feeling drained.
  4. Practice self-care: Make sure to take care of your physical, emotional and mental well-being, by getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and engaging in activities that you enjoy.
  5. Learn active listening: Listen to others with the intent to understand, without interrupting or judging, and avoid giving unsolicited advice.
  6. Practice perspective-taking: Try to understand the other person’s point of view and perspective, it will help you understand their emotions and intentions better.
  7. Seek professional help if needed: Empathy can be emotionally taxing, if you feel that you are struggling and unable to cope, it’s important to seek professional help.

By practicing these steps, you can develop healthy empathy, and balance your ability to understand and connect with others with the need to take care of yourself.

What about compassion?

Compassion is important in today’s busy world because it helps us connect with others and understand their experiences, which can lead to greater empathy and understanding. It also helps us to be more compassionate towards ourselves, which can lead to greater self-care and well-being. When we are more compassionate, we are more likely to act in ways that benefit not only ourselves, but also those around us, making the world a more kind, caring, and empathetic place. Additionally, Compassion also helps to mitigate the negative effects of stress, anxiety and depression, which are common in today’s fast-paced world.

What does unhealthy compassion look like?

Unhealthy compassion, also known as “compassion fatigue” or “compassion burnout,” can manifest in several ways, including:

  1. Emotional exhaustion: Constant exposure to the suffering of others can lead to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and emotional exhaustion.
  2. Physical symptoms: Prolonged exposure to stress and emotional turmoil can lead to physical symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and decreased immunity.
  3. Depersonalization: Unhealthy compassion can lead to feeling detached and disconnected from others, making it difficult to empathize and connect with others.
  4. Loss of boundaries: People who experience unhealthy compassion may have difficulty setting boundaries, which can lead to over-involvement in other people’s problems, neglecting their own needs, and becoming overwhelmed.
  5. Negative impact on relationships: Unhealthy compassion can lead to neglecting important relationships and damaging existing ones.
  6. Negative impact on self-care: Unhealthy compassion can lead to neglecting self-care, which can further contribute to physical and emotional exhaustion.

It’s important to remember that compassion is a noble and important trait but it’s also important to practice self-care and to set boundaries to avoid compassion fatigue and burnout. It’s essential to be aware of one’s own limits and to take the necessary steps to recharge and maintain balance in life.

What does healthy compassion look like?

Healthy compassion can manifest in several ways, including:

  1. Emotional balance: People who practice healthy compassion are able to empathize with others without becoming emotionally overwhelmed or exhausted.
  2. Self-awareness: They are aware of their own emotions and physical sensations, and can distinguish between their own feelings and those of others.
  3. Setting boundaries: They are able to set healthy boundaries and prioritize their own well-being without neglecting the needs of others.
  4. Focus on solutions: They focus on finding solutions to the problems at hand, rather than getting bogged down in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
  5. Positive impact on relationships: Healthy compassion can lead to stronger, more empathetic relationships with others.
  6. Positive impact on self-care: Healthy compassion leads to taking care of oneself, both emotionally and physically, which can help to prevent compassion fatigue and burnout.
  7. Positive impact on community: Healthy compassion can also lead to positive impact on community as a whole, by promoting empathy, understanding and cooperation among people.

Overall, healthy compassion allows individuals to empathize with others while maintaining balance and taking care of themselves. It enables them to be compassionate and effective helpers, both for themselves and others.

How do you develop healthy compassion?

Here are a few ways to develop compassion:

  1. Practice mindfulness and self-awareness: By paying attention to your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions, you can become more attuned to the experiences of others.
  2. Practice self-compassion: Treat yourself with the same kindness and understanding that you would offer to a friend.
  3. Take perspective: Try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand their experiences and challenges.
  4. Volunteer: Helping others can be a great way to build compassion.
  5. Practice gratitude: Being thankful for what you have can help you appreciate the struggles of others.
  6. Practice active listening: Giving your full attention when someone is speaking can help you understand their feelings and perspectives.
  7. Practice random acts of kindness: Doing small things to help others can increase feelings of empathy and compassion.
  8. Learn empathy: Empathy is the foundation of compassion and empathy can be developed through various practices like reading fiction, storytelling, etc.
  9. Meditate: Mindfulness and compassion-based meditation can help increase feelings of empathy and compassion.
  10. Seek out and surround yourself with compassionate role models: Being around compassionate people can help to inspire and guide you in your own journey towards compassion.

It’s important to note that developing compassion is a continuous process and may take time and practice. It’s also important to remember that compassion is not only a feeling but also an action, so it’s important to practice it and not just feel it.

Take different sectors in life. I am a politician, I am a councillor on my local city council.

So where does compassion come into politics?

There are several reasons why we need more compassion in politics:

  1. Compassion promotes understanding and cooperation: When politicians approach policy-making with compassion, they are more likely to take into consideration the perspectives and needs of all individuals, rather than just a select few.
  2. Compassion leads to more effective policy making: When politicians are able to empathize with the individuals affected by their policies, they are better equipped to create solutions that effectively address the issues at hand.
  3. Compassion fosters a more inclusive society: Compassionate leaders actively work to create a society where all individuals are treated with dignity and respect, regardless of their background or identity.
  4. Compassion can help to reduce political polarization: When politicians approach issues with compassion, they are less likely to demonize those with opposing views and more likely to work towards finding common ground and solutions.
  5. Compassion can mitigate the harmful effects of divisive rhetoric: Compassionate leaders can help to counteract the harmful effects of divisive rhetoric by promoting empathy and understanding, rather than fear and mistrust.
  6. Compassion can help to build trust between citizens and politicians: When citizens see their leaders as compassionate, they are more likely to trust and support them, which can lead to more effective governance.

Overall, incorporating compassion into politics can lead to more effective policy-making, a more inclusive society, and greater cooperation between citizens and politicians.

To summarise empathy is a great starting point. We can feel what the other person is feeling. However, if we don’t do anything with it it is almost useless.

And yes there is an unhealthy version of compassion. Perhaps you are sticking your nose in where it’s not needed. Perhaps sometimes you are helping when it is for your own healing and not for them. Sometimes we are helping others when really we should be helping ourselves.

Essentially, we need to have a good mix of healthy compassion, which stems from healthy empathy and I do genuinely believe the world is heading towards it more and more.

It’s just taking its time. And it doesn’t always feel like it when you watch the headlines.

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