Negativity. Pain. Emotional exhaustion. It’s bad enough when we feel our own, but we can also feel others’ pain and negative emotion as if it’s ours. This emotional sharing can zap our energy and upset our equilibrium. It can begin to feel too difficult to be there for the people who depend on us in our personal and professional lives.
Studies indicate that compassion provides a powerful and enriching way to respond to the negative emotions and pain of others. With a little guidance and by practicing these exercises, you can learn to buffer the vicarious experience of pain without sacrificing the important relationships in your life.
Empathy is the capacity to share the feelings of others. It can bring us joy when we share positive feelings like happiness, and distress when we vicariously experience another’s negative emotions like pain, grief, or sadness. This shared distress can be challenging and emotionally exhausting for caregivers and for people who work in the helping or service professions – basically, a lot of us. In fact, studies indicate that this kind of empathy – empathic distress – can result in non-social behaviors like withdrawal from others and reduced altruism, poorer health outcomes associated with higher levels of prolonged stress, and burnout syndrome.
Compassion is another form of empathy, one that contrasts significantly to empathetic distress. Compassion is characterized by feelings for another rather than with another and by the desire to improve the other’s well-being. Unlike distress empathy, compassion is informed by warmth and care for other people and, therefore, promotes pro-social behaviors, increases altruism, and supports good health.
Distress empathy and compassion, therefore, are two very different psychological and behavioral responses to the negative emotions of others. In addition, functional MRI studies indicate that the brain’s neural networks activated by each response are different as well; distress empathy lights up a brain network associated with pain perception and unpleasantness, while compassion activates a network associated with love and affinity. It is not surprising, then, that distress empathy and compassion affect us so differently.
Happily, our brains are “plastic” and we can train them to respond to a specific stimulus in a specific way: in this case, to respond compassionately rather than with distress. This means we can all learn to be more compassionate and less prone to empathic distress.
Here are five easy and proven exercises to accomplish this:
Begin a daily loving-kindness meditation practice.
One of my favorites is on a free app called, “Calm” because I can choose how long I want to meditate: 3-25 minutes. You can meditate while you’re seated, standing, on the subway, in your office – just about anywhere! You can also find a beautiful loving-kindness meditation on the Greater Good in Action website or listen to others on the Whil app and Headspace app.
Instead of recognizing differences between yourself and others, choose to recognize what you have in common with others. We are all human beings, after all, and compassion for others is built on this principal. Here are some statements you can use:
“Just like me, this person is seeking happiness and love in his/her life.”
“Just like me, this person wants to avoid suffering in his/her life.”
“Just like me, this person is seeking to fill his/her needs.”
“Just like me, this person is learning about life.”
Become more self-compassionate
The more compassion you show yourself, the easier it is to extend warmth and care to others. Dr. Kristin Neff is one of the foremost authorities on self-compassion and her website includes guided meditations as short as 5 minutes as well as exercises for building self-compassion. There is a special exercise for caregivers and one of my favorites is exploring how differently we would treat ourselves if we pretended we were a friend.
Research indicates (1) we all have the ability to be kind and (2) kindness is a character strength uniformly prized in all human cultures. To develop this strength, you could begin a practice by performing one random act of kindness each day. Examples might be slowing to allow a car to merge in front of you or giving people your undivided attention when they share something with you. A wise instructor once told me that “thank you” are two of the most powerful words in the English language and that there is always something we can thank a person for: their trust in us, their friendship, their time, whatever!
Be mindful of the difference between distress empathy and compassion
All of us can identify circumstances that routinely feel burdensome. Prepare yourself ahead of time to listen openly, without judgment, and from a place of caring rather than having to fix a problem or commiserate with the other person’s pain and suffering.
All these exercises are proven to help you build your compassion muscle. In addition, only the first option -- developing a loving-kindness mindfulness meditation practice -- requires you to actually schedule time for implementation; the other exercises require only a shift in your perspective and/or awareness. In other words, with some forethought and intentionality they can be easily integrated into your day. The payoff for you is clear and compelling: you can expect to improve your sense of well-being as well as your connection with the people you care for and about, and escape the dreaded caregiver burnout.
Heidi Duskey (MS, PCC) helps her clients embrace change and take charge of their health and life. Her approach blends proven coaching methods with science so that clients gain an appreciation for their values, their strengths, and who they are as unique human beings. With this framework, self-awareness improves, learning accelerates, and clients report they are able to respond to life’s “stuff” with clarity, self-acceptance, and purpose. The result is that Heidi's clients experience themselves and their lives in fresh, new ways.