Every single day this week, at least one of my friends either shared some hard news they’d heard with me or broke down over challenges they were facing. Each time I comforted someone, I empathized with them. I tried to feel what they were feeling because I thought that “stepping into their shoes” was a necessary part of understanding what they were going through in order for me to be of some help to them.
It wasn’t long before I found myself worn out. Sharing the feelings of anxiety, stress, angst, and sadness that my friends were expressing left me at the end of my emotional rope. I felt frustrated — how could I be of any use to anyone if I was just as distressed as they were? It seemed impossible that I was somehow supposed to empathize with each person I comforted and still maintain my own mental wellness.
But perhaps I was wrong about empathy. Perhaps we all are — or perhaps we are defining it the wrong way. Instead, I argue for the practice of what I will call “compassion.”
The difference between exercising empathy versus compassion can be found in Buddhist teachings, which differentiate between feeling the emotions of others and engaging in the practice of “karuna,” also known as compassion. Empathizing with another refers to feeling what another is feeling, with relative accuracy. Compassion, on the other hand, is more goal-oriented — it’s the desire to help relieve others of their distress. Compassion means being willing to “share in” the emotions and suffering of another — though this doesn’t necessarily mean feeling this emotion personally. Compassion also means taking reasonable actions towards alleviating another’s distress.
Why is the distinction between these two terms so important? Namely, because empathizing with another does not necessarily lead to compassion. Often, engaging in empathy and feeling the suffering of another can have the opposite effect. We are naturally hard-wired to avoid difficult emotions or feelings. For this reason, empathizing with another — and thus feeling their feelings — often leads to acting out, becoming angry towards the distressed person, or attempting to escape the situation. To truly help a distressed friend, you must act compassionately — you must agree to sit with the person you are trying to comfort, despite your empathetic response urging you to leave.
“Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion,” a 2016 novel written by psychologist Paul Bloom, discusses the shortcomings of empathy and the capacity for it to induce “burnout” in those who practice it too frequently. It isn’t always easy to shut off our empathy. However, being aware that empathy is something to be observed, and not necessarily indulged, is an important takeaway.
As each of us endeavor to support and comfort our friends as the semester comes to an end, I suggest a way to help them without hurting ourselves. Instead of empathy, try compassion. Remember that to help a friend and share in their hurt does not necessarily mean you have to feel their hurt.
Claudia Frykberg is a senior in the English department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.