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Does Compassion Fatigue You?

Updated: Oct 15, 2023

Yesterday, three-year-old Tara cried for five hours straight. The earache was painful for her but also for her parents, for whom her pain was almost as vivid as if it were their own.

This is the experience of empathy. To feel empathy is to know another person’s feelings deep within oneself. It is an essential aspect of our being as it fosters connection and close relationships. Yet empathy can take us in an unhelpful direction. Feeling too much into another's suffering can result in becoming distressed oneself. It can lead to overwhelm and provoke stress reactions: fight, flight or freeze. We may become angry on the other person's behalf or recoil in horror, wanting to get away. In the face of suffering in the world, we may go numb. Reactions like this lead to what is sometimes known as compassion fatigue. But this phrase is a misnomer. It fails to recognise what compassion actually is.

Neuroscientist Tania Singer has studied empathy. She has worked with Matthieu Ricard, a long-term practitioner of compassion meditation. Singer asked Ricard to watch a distressing film about deprived children in an orphanage. The lack of human love had devastated these children's bodies and minds.

This result was quite unexpected. But it showed an important aspect of empathy; that it can move in different directions.

In this experiment, Ricard focussed only on the suffering of the children. What was it like for them? Scans of his brain showed activity in neural networks connected with pain. By the end, he felt exhausted. He was experiencing empathic distress: a destructive state associated with overwhelm and burnout. He asked if he could continue, but use compassion meditation to help with these feelings. Now, the brain scans highlighted areas associated with love and care. He concluded the experiment in an uplifted state of mind.

The experiment showed a marked contrast between empathy and compassion, seen both through Ricard’s personal experience and brain imaging. This result was quite unexpected. But it showed an important aspect of empathy; that it can move in different directions. Empathy can lead towards distress and fatigue. Or it can move into the revitalising quality of compassion.

Experts in compassion propose that it is a wholly positive state of mind. My curiosity has been alerted as I have attempted to understand this. After all, compassion involves an honest engagement with suffering. How is it possible to do that without any distress? An insight came to me while training to teach the Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living course. Another trainee and I were exchanging experiences of personal suffering. She opened up about a hurtful aspect of her early life. I could feel how painful this issue had been for her. My heart went out to her. I too have had difficulties, different ones, that I can trace back to a young age. I resonated, yet felt no distress in myself. I was grateful that she had opened up to me. The connection between us was warm and heartfelt. It was beautiful. I felt alive, bright and not in any way fatigued. The thought came to me: "this must be compassion! And it's wonderful!"

So, how do empathy and compassion differ?

Empathy is a natural expression of fellow feeling. We recognise another person as being like us and able to feel the same way we do. When they appear happy, we are happy for them. When sad, we also feel their sadness. This is the natural state of being human. We have become involved in another's life and are in relationship with them.

But this is where things get difficult. When someone else suffers, we also can feel their pain – but that can be unpleasant. Another part of the natural state of being human is that we tend to avoid pain. This creates tension and is where empathy can go awry. Although we feel for them, we also wish to avoid the other person's pain. We may become stuck within the tension, unable to respond. We may feel a growing sense of overwhelm. This leads to exhaustion over time, as in the case of Matthieu Ricard above. We may become angry, choose to walk away or become numb to the experience. We may try to ‘fix’ their pain - to relieve our own feelings.

Compassion is wholly different. It begins with empathy, but it goes further, including active well-wishing, with a desire to be of service if we can. And with compassion, we tend not to avoid the pain but rather be willing to experience it. One difference lies in where we stand in the relationship. Do we maintain a healthy separation, or do we get lost in someone else’s experience? If we lose sight of ourselves, we are likely to experience their feelings as our own; to react as though their feelings are ours. This is when we become angry on their behalf, or try to drift away. If, though, we become aware of ourselves in relation to the other person, a different scenario unfolds.

This opens up a new world of experience. We are now in touch with our body. The body is so important in compassion. Through the body, we remain grounded. Through the body, we stay in touch with our own feelings. This is the same territory as mindfulness practice. And we can still feel for the other person while knowing we are not them.

There is delight in situating ourselves in this way. As we are not consumed by the troubles of the other person, there is space in our heart to care for them. There is also opportunity to consider how best to help. Our ability to see another as like to ourselves leads to a sense of kinship. Out of this arises a natural wish to do what we can to ease suffering for the other person. This is a fundamental aspect of compassion. The wish is spontaneous, yet it is also discerning. We know how, or even whether, to act. This is why compassion and wisdom are often considered as two wings of a bird; two aspects of the same quality. There is no compassion without wisdom, and vice versa.

There may, or may not be, a warm glow that accompanies compassion. It may be tender, yet it may manifest as tough love. I once saw a care assistant challenge a depressed elderly patient. The man had been refusing to walk on his own, even though he was capable of doing so. The carer firmly pointed out how this would lead to further loss of independence. How it would make things worse for the man and his family. The patient looked shocked, but a short while later I noticed him walking unaided. Like real friendship, compassion is not about being nice. I appreciate people in my life who call my actions and beliefs into question, those who care enough to take the trouble.

True compassion has no downsides. Those who experience it become uplifted. Those who receive it benefit. And those who witness it are often inspired to be compassionate themselves. We could call this a win-win-win situation. Once we understand this, talk of 'compassion fatigue' makes no sense.

But if compassion is so wonderful and so natural, why are we not all doing it every day? Is there a catch? In a sense, yes. As with mindfulness, most of the time it is not our automatic response. We all have capacity to be kind and aware, but we often cover it up. Mindfulness training is not so much about learning something new. It is learning to open to something already there. Compassion is the same. It takes clear intention and ongoing effort. Often, I find that my habits go straight to blame, avoidance or indifference. This gives momentary relief, like scratching an itch. And I encounter resistance to changing those habits! Yet change is possible - and rewarding.

Here are some suggestions:

  • Notice suffering, whether our own or others'. Name it for what it is. Then ask a question. What would be a kind, compassionate response right now? What do I need here? Using this line of questioning, I have noted that, often, I know the answer. Or at least, half-know. It may not be automatic, but compassion is not foreign. It is innate. And we can tend it.

  • Look out for inspiring stories of compassion, whether in real life or in fiction. Allow them to move you.

  • Practice a loving-kindness or compassion meditation. Try one of the short Breathing Space with Kindness practices here.

  • In meditation or at other times, focus on any feelings of tenderness, care and a desire to help that may arise.

  • Or enrol on a compassion course. I recommend Mindful Self-Compassion; Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living, or Compassion Cultivation Training.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.

Without them humanity cannot survive. Dalai Lama

Photo by Mart Production, Pexels

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