Empathy allows us to relate to other people’s feelings, creating bonds. However, when the boundaries become blurred, the sharing of suffering can cause burnout. Compassion can be a healthier alternative.
People in care-giving professions, such as nurses and psychotherapists, and those with a loved one suffering from a chronic illness or a mental health problem are at risk of suffering distress and feelings of hopelessness. These negative emotions can be so intense that they can ultimately provoke the person to want to escape from the situation in order to protect themselves.
So what can we do when we find ourselves in a situation like this?
We don’t want to fail our loved ones when they need us the most, but, at the same time, the situation may be draining us. It turns out that there is a much more helpful approach – compassion. Although it might sound similar, compassion is different from empathy in that it involves concern for the suffering of others, instead of feeling their emotions as it they were your own. In this way, compassion makes it more likely that we end up actually helping the other person instead of running away when it all gets to be too much.
If we find that empathy is draining us, compassion may be a better alternative.
Is it possible to train ourselves to become more compassionate?
Most of us think about the way we experience our emotions as something inherent to our personality which is impossible to change. But our brain is flexible. If we repeat something often enough, new connections can be formed, resulting in new habits and abilities. This is true not only for learning a new language or maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but it also applies to the regulation of emotions.
One way to train compassion is through meditation-related techniques that cultivate feelings of kindness. The most widely used technique in psychological research is what is known as loving kindness training. This mental practice consists of visualising people while cultivating feelings of benevolence for them. Initially, these sessions often involve visualising a person that we feel very close to. As one advances through the sessions, however, these feelings of kindness are extended to strangers and even to people we may not get along with so well.
Scientists have shown that after a few weeks of this type of training, participants not only feel better but are also more likely to help strangers. Neuroscientist Tania Singer has extensively studied empathy and compassion using neuroimaging techniques. Singer and her team found that, following empathy training where volunteers watched short film fragments showing people suffering, they felt more negative emotions and the brain regions involved in negative emotions switched on. On the other hand, participants who had received the compassion training experienced more positive feelings and showed activations in brain regions related with positive emotions.
If you want to know more about the neuroscience of compassion, you can watch this video.
Written by: Clara Garcia-Gorro. Edited by Marisha.