The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion
An imaginary conversation with Joan Halifax
We live in a politically noxious world. Many of us are concerned about the neuro and psychosocial toxins we encounter on the daily as a result of the globally divisive political landscape we live amidst.
In light of this social sepsis, it might seem wise to pull back on our compassion in order to protect ourselves from infection. After all, there’s only so much one person can take in, right?
Well, it turns out that compassion actually helps to build our physical immunity. At this point, peer-reviewed medical studies back this claim.1
Now the thing is, many of us conflate compassion with empathy, and empathy without emotional regulation can lead to massive personal distress, which ends up helping exactly nobody.
But, Roshi Joan Halifax tells us, compassion and empathy are different, and if we want to reap the immunity enhancing benefits of compassion, it’s vital to distinguish between the two. She explains:
Empathy is … feeling into the vicarious sharing of experience of another. It can be looked at as an expansion of our awareness to include the physical aspect of a cognitive experience. This is a very powerful and important process that we engage in that enhances our ability to be human with each other, to care for each other, to know or sense into or have some sense of what others feel.
But compassion is a little bit different and it can include empathy, but it is more related to a feeling for another. And that feeling for another might not necessarily be the same as what the sufferer is experiencing. [It] is not necessarily "isomorphic" … to the experience of the suffering person’s affective state, or somatic experience, or way of seeing the world.
She goes on to distinguish between empathic concern, an experience that is other focused, and empathic distress which is self focused. If we find ourselves being overwhelmed by the suffering of another, we are moving into empathic distress. In our attempt to be there for and with that suffering person we may think we want to help for their sake,
but actually we're more motivated to relieve our own suffering, in response to the other person's suffering, and our own feelings of being uncomfortable, and also … to protect ourselves from what we might experience as a kind of negative state.
So how do we retain and cultivate the generative quality of empathic concern but not go into empathic distress? Social psychologists and neuroscientists tell us it’s all about emotion regulation, which is when:
we actually recognize our response to the suffering of another as beginning to overwhelm us and we do something to transform our appraisal of the situation, how we view this situation, or our somatic or our affective response to being in the presence of another person…
That capacity to have a metacognitive awareness of our own subjectivity of our own reactions and responsiveness is really important. And this is something that you can train in – that ability to step out of our experience, to do a very quick evaluation and to … regulate our experience.
That “metacognitive awareness” she speaks of has to do with being in a place of witnessing another’s distress and being able to cognitively distinguish that we are indeed separate from the suffering person. She teaches that we can realize:
…yes, at some level, we're all one, we're interconnected, we're interdependent, we all dwell within each other's experience, but from another point of view, I am not You. This person who is suffering from intractable pain, I'm not suffering from intractable pain. I'm just with it, including their experience, including them in my awareness but I'm not that person.
For the deeply empathic in this audience, I hope this brings some fresh air into the room. It’s easy to choke on the empathic distress we might feel with all that’s happening in our world. Remembering these two simple, introductory pointers from Joan Halifax might help:
Emotion regulation: I can recognize when I am becoming dis-regulated in the presence of another’s suffering; I can transform my somatic response
Metacognitive awareness: In order to effectively act with compassion I can be aware that I am a separate person from you
That said, I love this Mayan phrase, “In Lak’ech,” which means something like “I am another yourself.” I can know this and at the same time know I am separate from you, in order that I may act on my concern for your welfare constructively.
Pace TW, Negi LT, Adame DD, et al. Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2009;34(1):87-98. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2008.08.011