Empathic people feel the pain of others acutely. Is it possible to be too empathic? Could feeling too deeply for someone else’s pain or sorrow actually hurt you?
Indeed, too much empathy can be debilitating. When we become too distressed about the suffering of others, we don’t have the cognitive and emotional resources available to do much to help them. Having compassion, a cognitive understanding how they’re feeling, is better for our own well-being and the well-being of those in need.
The idea that there can actually be too much empathy can be traced back to early Buddhist teachings. Instead of focusing on empathy to the point of draining ourselves emotionally, Buddhism teaches the practice of compassion, called karuna. This is the idea of sharing in suffering, having concern for another, but essentially “feeling for and not feeling with the other.”
Neuroscientists Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki conducted studies comparing empathy and compassion. Two separate experiment groups were trained to practice either empathy or compassion. Their research revealed fascinating differences in the brain’s reaction to the two types of training.
First, the empathy training activated motion in the insula (linked to emotion and self-awareness) and motion in the anterior cingulate cortex (linked to emotion and consciousness), as well as pain registering). The compassion group, however, stimulated activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex (connected to learning and reward in decision making) as well as activity in the ventral striatum (also connected to the reward system).
Second, the two types of training led to very different emotions and attitudes toward action. The empathy-trained group actually found empathy uncomfortable and troublesome. The compassion group, on the other hand, created positivity in the minds of the group members. The compassion group ended up feeling kinder and more eager to help others than those in the empathy group.
Tips to Avoid Empathic Distress
When we see something distressing, it activates the fight/flight response and our breathing becomes fast and shallow, which increases our anxiety and gives our emotions momentum. Research shows that slow, steady deep breathing activates the vagus nerve which comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response. A few deep breaths will help you feel calmer.
Feel your body.
When you’re witnessing strong emotions in others, intent to stay with yourself rather than getting caught up in their experience. Feel your feet on the ground and wiggle your toes. Bend your knees slightly if you are standing, and feel your butt in the chair supporting you if you’re sitting. Be aware of body sensations and imagine yourself holding the sensations and emotions as they move through your body. And, of course keep the option open to physically remove yourself situations that become too distressing.
Tips to Cultivate Compassion
Limit exposure to negativity.
We have a perceptual bias to pay more attention to negative, potentially threatening information. It’s good to be aware of possible threats and problems. But without some perspective-taking, it can lead us to believe that the negative outweighs the positive. Be discerning about the amount of time and attention you give to distressing information on a regular basis.
Practice Loving-Kindness Meditation.
By deliberately imagining yourself, your loved ones, people you feel neutral about, and even people you dislike, experiencing happiness and freedom – you make the world a kinder place. Research in Loving-Kindness meditation shows it builds emotional resilience and meaningful social connections which can help you respond to challenges with compassion.
Copyright Tara Well, 2017, all rights reserved.
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Bloom, P. (2016). Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. Harper Collins.
Goodman, C. (2014). Consequences of Compassion: An Interpretation and Defense of Buddhist Ethics. Oxford University Press.
RSA (2013). Brené Brown on Empathy. Online video clip. YouTube. December 10, 2013. Web.
Singer, T. & Klimecki, O.M. (2014). Empathy and Compassion. Current Biology, 24, 875-878.