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Learn & Practice

Tuesday Tip: Shift from Empathy to Compassion

By The Healthy Minds Team

In this week’s Tuesday Well-Being Tip, we take a look at the difference between cultivating empathy vs. compassion.

Photo by J W on Unsplash

In the Connection pillar of the Healthy Minds Framework for well-being, a key element is developing the skill of “compassion” and understanding the difference between the feelings of “empathy” vs. “compassion.” It’s a key distinction that can help shift your perspective on processing the suffering or pain of others.

If you’re someone who self-identifies as “highly empathetic,” you may feel emotionally drained by the moods of others, or by a news story that outlines the suffering of others. Why is that? Shouldn’t “feeling someone else’s pain,” be a good thing – helping you feel closer to our common humanity?

Well, not exactly. Being empathetic turns your focus inward, instead of focusing on the other person.

In fact, empathy is all about oneself. Compassion is about the other person. That’s why cultivating compassion instead of empathy is a key aspect of well-being.

Per our founder, Dr. Richard Davidson:

When people experience a moment of empathic distress, for example when a loved one is in pain and they feel it too, their attention shifts from the other person back to themselves. In other words, empathy, without care and compassion, is self-focused experience. We ourselves become distressed and try to cope with our own response. Compassion is just the opposite. With compassion, we may have that moment of recognition when we recognize that the person is suffering, and maybe even feel a twinge of that pain ourselves, but our focus – our orientation, if you will – is on the other person. We don’t get caught up in our own feelings and reactions. Our attention, infused with care and the motivation to help, is with the other person. Compassion is always – by definition – other-centered.

Dr. Richard Davidson

This can be a major shift in how you see the world. You can practice compassion, and apply these skills in your life and train your mind to come from a place of reducing suffering for others, rather than just experiencing the pain of others.

When you’re practicing compassion, or applying these skills in your life, don’t worry about having some warm and fuzzy feeling. All you have to do is keep your perspective on the other person, and imbue that perspective with a sense of care and concern.

Compassion is more an attitude, or an “orientation” as Dr. Davidson notes. We’re giving the person our full attention, and we’re motivated to help if we can.

What we are feeling in that moment is beside the point. It’s about them.

When this shift in perspective happens, an interesting shift in the brain happens too.

Again, according to Dr. Davidson:

The brain networks associated with empathy and compassion don’t overlap at all. They’re completely different systems in the brain. When people experience raw empathy, brain regions associated with pain and negative emotions become active. But with compassion, it’s a different network. It’s brain regions associated with positive emotions, feelings of connection, and the ability to see from someone else’s perspective.

Dr. Richard Davidson

So today’s well-being tip is to shift your perspective from empathy to compassion. With compassion practices we can train our ability to shift our self-focus to a focus on other people.

You can do this with small gestures, like noticing if someone needs help carrying something and offering to help, or just checking in on a loved one. Or you can give this meditation a try to start strengthening this skill even more!

Get more practices and tips by downloading the Healthy Minds Program App, freely available thanks to the generosity of our donors wherever you get your apps.

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