- Research shows empathy isn’t just about emotions: We mirror each other’s physiology as well.
- When we empathize with people who are struggling, our bodies go into a stress state.
- Compassion is a state of calm and connectedness. It also provides more support to others.
While empathy is an essential ingredient for solid, supportive relationships, it comes at a cost.
Research shows that empathy is a whole-body experience: We mirror each other’s physiology alongside the emotion. Negative states, whether it is pain, anger, or anxiety, create high activation and arousal in the body, so when you empathize with someone stressed, you become stressed, too. This is why so many caregivers experience burnout.
Empathy doesn’t make us good helpers either. When we become activated, we are no longer present. Stuck in our own stress state, we don’t listen well and lack the ability to soothe another. Think about those friends who make you feel worse when you’re down, rather than better.
There is a solution. Compassion is defined as concern for the suffering of others with the motivation to help. It is a completely distinct neurological state from empathy. Whereas empathy activates the insula and anterior midcingulate cortex, compassion employs the medial orbitofrontal cortex and the ventral striatum.
From a physiological perspective, empathy for negative emotions engages the stress system (e.g., fight-flight-freeze), while compassion relies on the ventral vagal, a physiological state of safety and connectedness. Interestingly, this is when empathy helps rather than hurts: The person in pain gets to co-regulate with a safe, calm individual, experiencing safety and calm in their bodies as well. When we sit in compassion, we provide space, care, and love for those who are hurting.
So how do we practice compassion? Laboratory studies cultivate it in their participants by first putting them in a calm, peaceful environment. Then, participants do a loving-kindness meditation. They visualize their own suffering and send love to it. Then they extend that warmth to a close friend, a person in pain, a neutral person, and finally the community at large.
There are two takeaways here. First, compassion is active. You send love to the other person, instead of passively experiencing their pain alongside them. Second, it supports the person in need. When you come from a loving place, you create a safe environment for them. You give them a judgment-free space to experience their thoughts and emotions.
If you empathize easily and struggle with the associated stress, here is a five-step plan to nurture your caring side without the negative side effects:
- Identify your empathy pain points. What targets bring out your empathy? Sure, we feel empathy when our friends are hurting. But, for many people, other activities, like reading or watching the news, activate their empathy and make them feel stressed. Watching horror films or reading fiction that includes lots of pain (e.g., divorce, illness, death) gets to others. How’s this for irony?: We know we’re supposed to reduce screen time before bed. But, if you select a book that produces empathy and, therefore, stress, it will be harder to fall asleep than if you just watched cat videos.
- Determine the value of the empathic experience. Is the empathic stress worth it? Does it help strengthen your relationships or produce positive change in your community? Modern life has a lot of unproductive empathy targets. Whether it is an alarmist new program or shocking social media videos, we expend a lot of empathy on targets that don’t enrich our lives and sometimes make them worse (e.g., getting a bad night’s sleep because of a trauma-filled novel).
- Find alternatives. Choose entertainment that makes you laugh and feel good. When you get together with friends, do things you enjoy. If you are not a night person, don’t get together with friends for drinks. If shopping for clothes makes you feel bad, go for a walk with friends instead. If you want to stay updated on current events yet find your sources to be empathy activators, try other sources that are less alarmist. Pick newspapers, magazines, or shows that offer the same content without pulling on your heartstrings. Be discriminating about what you allow into your orbit. If this makes you feel guilty, remember that the more you keep yourself regulated and happy, the better you will be able to serve others in your community who need you.
- Foster self-compassion. Build safety and calm in your environment. Whether it is putting on relaxing music, favoring soft-white lamps over fluorescent lighting, or putting a plant in your office, bring nuggets of peace into your world. Do guided compassion meditations if they feel good to you. Treat yourself to a good meal. Incorporate loving-kindness practices into your life to regulate your body and make you feel safe so that you can then share that feeling with others.
- Practice in-the-moment compassion. When someone comes to you with pain or anxiety, take a deep breath to keep yourself grounded and focus on listening. Actively send them love. This will keep you in a nonstressed state that gives the other person room to experience their thoughts and feelings and ultimately join you in a calm, nonstressed state as well.
Empathy is a fundamental part of being human, helping us to bond and watch out for each other. People who lack empathy, like narcissists and sociopaths, cause a lot of damage in the world. However, the experience of empathy can be hard. When we spend too much time in empathy, we damage ourselves instead.
The key is to actively choose when you want to feel what others are feeling (e.g., the joy of dancing), and when you would rather be of service with compassion (e.g. when a friend is down). Compassion enables you to be your caring, giving self, without the stress and burnout.
Coutinho, J.F., Silva, P.O., & Decety, J. (2014). Neurosciences, empathy, and healthy interpersonal relationships: recent findings and implications for counseling psychology. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 61(4), 541–548.
Klimecki, O.M., Lieberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2014). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(8), 873–879.
Porges, S.W. (2021). Vagal Pathways: Portals to Compassion. In Porges, S.W. (Eds.), Polyvagal Safety: Attachment, Communication, Self-Regulation (pp. 66–87). W. W. Norton & Company.