Compassion's beauty arises in the moment you give a crying child a hug or sit down for a candid conversation with a friend about their recent struggles. Compassion proves our humanity, showing our genuine desire to lessen suffering and cultivate peace and joy. My six years of counseling have taught me the dangers of compassion left unchecked by empathy. This brief article explores the important connection between empathy and compassion.
The terms empathy, sympathy, and compassion often get tossed around as synonyms. To alleviate this confusion, I use a quick visual to discern their differences. Imagine a triangle. The triangle, from top to bottom, illustrates one's level of involvement with another person. Empathy sits at the top of the triangle. We engage empathetically with others when we cognitively understand another person's perspective. We can be empathetic with someone without ever involving ourselves in their world. Notice that empathy has nothing to do with agreement. We can understand why someone did something (steal, for example) without agreeing or condoning their behavior. Also notice that empathy on its own may not produce enough motivation to help a person.
We become further involved with others through sympathy. Sympathy occurs when we share in the feeling state of another. We are sad when they are sad, excited when they are excited. Experiencing sympathy with (not for!) another does not mean we understand why they feel what they feel. But if we do understand—if we empathize along with our sympathy—a sense of connectivity, of shared experience, occurs.
Compassion, the most involved level of connection with another person, occurs when our empathy and sympathy motivate us to help alleviate someone's suffering. Compassion properly informed by our empathic understanding creates a space of shared understanding and clear action to move through and past difficult moments.
So what happens when we have a desire to help, but remain uninformed by empathy? Although our intention to help still exists, it can lead to blind guessing on our part. At worst, our intention to act may become clouded by our need to alleviate our own difficult feelings (our sympathetic feelings), rather than actually be of service to another. An example comes from one of the first groups I ever ran as a professional counselor. In it, a mother described in detail all the things she did to “help” her son, only to remain frustrated and cause strife between them. When she was done, I turned to the son and asked what “help” meant to him. He very plainly stated, “Mom, all I wanted was some help getting my driver's license.” If not for the serious tone of the group, it could have been a comedy sketch.
As you can now see, compassion left uniformed by empathy (the understanding of another's perspective) creates the opposite intention, producing more dis-ease. The fix proves simple: ASK. If you are uncertain how you can be of service, and maybe even if you are certain, check in with the person you wish to help. Asking “what do you need right now?” saves us from messy guess work and is itself a compassionate act.
Written by Joshua Nash, LPC-S
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