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Empathy vs. Compassion

self-compassion

I figured that after an entire week of meditating on self-compassion I would be this transformed, kind, loving person to myself. But now I realize that what I learned was just the beginning of a practice that will take a lifetime. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising, but it’s hard to give up on the hope that something will be a quick fix. Especially if it involves pain and suffering.

I’ve written a lot of posts about how I struggle with having too much empathy. I feel other people’s pain as though it were my own–and in addition to my own. Sometimes that’s just too much pain to take, and I end up crashing and burning.

And then I beat myself up for not being able to handle my life. Because other people have spouses and children they have to care for and they still work and go to the grocery store and cook dinner. I, on the other hand, just fall asleep on the couch, tired and hungry, because it’s too much effort to go across the street and get food.

Or I’ll choose a relationship where the person is in pain and feel compelled to help them. And they won’t be able to help me, because when you’re in pain, you’re not really in a position to focus on anyone else. But then I’ll be like, why aren’t you helping me? This relationship sucks! And then we break up.

One of the things I learned in the meditation retreat is there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue, which I described above, but compassion, like love, can expand to encompass all of the people we wish to send it to. In mathematical terms, the formula is:

compassion = empathy + love

I have always wondered why I felt the need to help people who I didn’t even really like. Who I had grown to hate, in some cases. It was tiring and confusing, so I would also berate myself for doing something so hurtful to myself. Which isn’t very compassionate.

Now, instead of exhausting myself from trying to get rid of the other person’s pain and then beating myself up for trying to do something that isn’t even possible, here are some things I can do:

1. I can say, that person is in pain. I will send them compassion.

2. I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.

3. Actually, I think I need to focus exclusively on me, so I’m just going to keep sending myself compassion.

4. I feel selfish and guilty for not doing more, but I can have compassion for myself and accept that I have limited resources.

5. I’m mad at that person for asking me for more than what I’m able to give, but I can have compassion for my anger and honor my need to focus on my own well-being.

6. I’m mad at myself because even though I just said I was going to focus on me, I gave the person what they wanted, anyway. But I can have compassion for myself for being human and therefore imperfect.

And I have to say, so far it’s going pretty well. In this moment, at least. But that’s all I need to focus on.

About Christy Barongan

I didn't know it at the time, but I wanted to be a psychologist so that I could figure out how to be normal. I think many people come to counseling for the same reason. What I've come to learn is that feeling good about myself is not about trying to be normal. It's about trying to be me. But it's a constant struggle for me, just like it is for everyone else. So I thought I would approach this task with openness and honesty and use myself as an example for how to practice self-acceptance.

27 responses »

  1. I have so much compassion for others–including animals as long as they aren’t rats, mice, or snakes–that I turned off my TV a few minutes ago. The last episode of the series Mad Men will air Sunday night. AMC is leading up to it with a Mad Men marathon. An episode came on that I can’t stand. In it a man doesn’t want the dog he claims to love. So he takes off the dog’s collar and lead, puts him out the door of a building in New York, and tells him to run away. The beautiful dog takes off. That scene drives me crazy because I feel so bad for the dog, BUT IT’S JUST A TV SHOW. I guess part of what bothers me is that people see things on TV and then they think it’s okay to imitate the actions of the characters. It also bothers me because even though it’s fiction, it’s painful to see.

    Love,
    Janie

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  2. “I feel their pain, so I will send compassion to myself, too.”—I love this concept. Many times, empathy can weigh us down, so helpless we feel. Simply watching the news can almost cripple us. The idea of sending compassion to ourselves as a result is one I hadn’t considered. It cuts us a bit of slack, in a way.

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  3. Thanks for the tips from the retreat. The one I struggle with is feeling guilty that I am not doing more…not just with individuals, but from a world perspective (I sent some $ to help the Nepalese earthquake victims, but shouldn’t I send more? And what about the countless other needs in my community, city, state and world?) Humbling to realize how many people out there are quietly working to make the world a more loving place…and all I have to do is my own part. God doesn’t need me to take over his job. But sometimes I think I would be so good at it! 🙂

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  4. Feeling others pain can sometimes be just debilitating as being the one in pain. I love this post!

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  5. I have gotten more and more empathetic as I’ve gotten older and have sometimes found it to be debilitating that there’s frequently nothing I can do or (as in the case of the tv show episode above) need to do. Until I read this I didn’t really think about directing compassion toward myself as well as others, which is strange. Thank you for framing these feelings so clearly and providing a variety of ways to handle the empathy depending on the circumstances.

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  6. This —> “there is no such thing as compassion fatigue. There is empathy fatigue…” I have never thought of it that way. I agree. I really like your list. So needed. I consider myself a very compassionate person but I need to direct that inward much more often than I do.

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  7. I am a school social worker. There is one more week of school and the kids have been falling apart. So many worry about the uncertainty that comes without the safety ( and two meals a day) that school represents. I so needed to read this post today (or every day since Spring Break!!). Thank you

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  8. I’ve always been one of those people who feels to much too! It’s hard to keep that perspective in mind, but we need to for survival.

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  9. Christy, we are completely on the same wavelength today! I agree with your sentiments exactly re: the purpose of empathy (to lead to greater compassion and ultimately expressions of love towards others)! 🙂 XO Shelah

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  10. Loved your post. Being an empath myself, I chose nursing for a career and though I’m retired now, I still try to help others through my blogging. For me, the analogy of the well worked. I needed to remember to fill up my well before I ran out of water to give to others. It’s become a habit now to do this daily. The more I take care of myself, the better I can help others learn to do the same. Thanks for your topic on compassion. 🙂

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  11. Excellent post! I can definitely relate to what you so beautifully wrote. I tend to feel empathy too much myself sometimes. To the point (as you said) where I get all caught up in them, and end up neglecting myself. And then I burn out. There has to be a happy medium … and your post will be very helpful in aiding me to find it! Thank you!

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  12. You’ve touched a nerve for many here and I’m another who can relate! This used to be such a problem for me – spending time supporting someone with problems and then feeling completely drained. I do sometimes feel that way, but nothing like as often, since I learned to pay more attention to my feelings and welcome them, rather than trying to solve the other person’s problems. What I do is similar to what you do, and it definitely helps a lot.

    Thanks for joining link-up.

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  13. Pingback: This is My Life | Normal in Training

  14. Pingback: It’s OK to Be Insane | Normal in Training

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