Something I’ve done a lot in the last decade is empathy. Indeed it has become one of the things I do the most at work: connecting with people and quite literally ‘feeling their pain’.
Walk a mile in another person’s shoes and you see the world differently; better understand different opinions and why people do what they do – even when it seems to be hurting both them and you.
But it comes at a cost. Connecting with the pain of others is painful for me too. It hurts to see someone hurting; and even more if you go with them to the very source of their pain – deep fears, anxiety, sadness and loneliness.
And this is a problem, because once you’ve seen the contents of someone’s soul, you can’t just shrug and say: “Oh dear, how sad, never mind.”
Not least because neuroscience is proving that our own brain copies the pain and suffering of others when we empathise. We do literally ‘feel their pain’ when we listen and put ourselves in their place. Mirror neurones fire in sympathy – in exactly the same pattern as in the sufferer; and the suffering is shared.
So I was fascinated to read in the New Scientist (in the article pictured above), that we should consider cutting the empathy; and boosting our compassion instead.
What’s the difference? I’m not sure I exactly know – but I can ‘feel’ the difference… Empathy feels like touching a person and connecting directly with their emotions – literally feeling what they are feeling. The science says that’s also what’s happening in your brain.
The problem is that in sharing, experiencing and absorbing the pain of others, we lessen our own reserves of optimism, energy and resilience. And that means ultimately we are less able to summon the strength to help or improve anything. Empathy feels draining.
Compassion feels different. Compassion ‘connects’ like empathy does but instead of firing the pain-mimicking mirror neurones, compassion digs deeper: for warmth, care, appreciation and common humanity.
I reckon this must be how the Pope, aid workers and others who have the suffering of hundreds, even thousands of people thrust upon them daily must cope. Not by directly empathising; but by digging deeper for compassion. Certainly it’s the Dalai Lama’s philosophy.
One thing’s for sure I haven’t cracked it yet. Now I know it, I can feel the difference – beleaguered by too much empathy; strangely strengthened by tapping into warmth and compassion.
But I can’t manage compassion confidently yet; I still want to say at the end of sad conversations “I feel you pain.” But I know now that’s the invitation and trigger to fire those mirror neurones, and carry away my share of another’s suffering.
Talking to a very smart work colleague about it this week, we concluded: if a person is in a deep dark hole, you’re not always helping them that much, if you just jump in next to them.
Similarly if you do try to feel another person’s pain and offer the classic line “I know how you feel” you risk real failing yourself and the person you’re talking to – how can you really know how someone feels?
When someone is in a dark place this week’s realisation is the answer isn’t necessarily to join them in the gloom. Compassion – if I can learn how to channel it – creates the same connection, but offers a better chance of staying happy and healthy; and being some help.