It’s Monday morning and Sue had a good night’s sleep, a pleasant journey into work and was in a positive mood ready for the day ahead. Everything was well with her world. Until that is, Joe walked into the office. He’d worked hard over the weekend to complete a report and just opened an email to find that it’s no longer needed. Joe vented his frustrations to Sue, who sat opposite. Sue empathised with Joe’s situation but that her happy mood evaporated as feelings of frustration and stress arose in the background.
Empathy is about adopting the emotional perspective of another; like “walking in someone else’s shoes”, you end up sharing their emotions and feeling what they feel. In Sue’s case, feeling sorry for Joe was a natural and very human reaction. The trouble was that, like an emotional sponge, she also soaked up Joe’s feelings of frustration and stress.
Understanding the feelings of others reaches right back to our early ancestors when emotions evolved to support social bonding and collaboration. Interestingly, scientists have also identified empathy in other animals including great apes, dolphins, elephants, dogs and, most recently, rodents.
Emotions are contagious. Similar to a radio receiver, we’re all vulnerable to picking up the expressed emotions of people around us. This even works remotely; watching someone taking part in a stressful event on television can cause anxiety and produce symptoms of stress, including rising levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Emotions can also be unconsciously shared over social media. In one experiment researchers found that when the timeline stories were manipulated to be more negative than usual, user posts tended to be more negative.
Empathy is different from sympathy, which is about feeling sorry for someone and understanding what they are going through. For example, we might send a sympathy card to someone we know who has suffered a family bereavement with the message, “Thinking of you”.
Of course, empathy can be positive when you feel the positive emotions of others. For instance, when someone full of energy and happiness enters a room. Clearly understanding and empathising with how other people feel is important, but if this means taking on other people’s feelings that do not serve us, then what is the point? If you try and help someone who’s full of anxiety, but feel anxious yourself, are you really helping or hindering how they feel?
Although empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, the differences are that:
- Empathy is feeling with the other person, tends to be passive receiving, and feelings are less regulated
- Compassion is feeling for the other person, tends to be active sending, and feelings are more regulated
An experiment that demonstrates these differences involved scanning the brains of monks who were experienced in developing compassion. They were asked to practise a compassion meditation known as loving-kindness, while they heard the sounds of people suffering. Non-meditators, who were controls in the same experiment, showed activity associated with empathy, and feelings of sadness and pain. Interestingly, the brain scans from the monks showed that activity in areas linked to empathy was suppressed, while areas involved with the care and positive social attachment were active. When researchers taught the loving-kindness practice to people in the control group, they found that people responded in the same way as the monks. And when followed up, these people also reported that they were less stressed at work and experiencing increased well-being.
So, are you are a compassion transmitter or an empathy receiver? By understanding the differences between empathy and compassion, we not only avoid taking on unnecessary emotional distress from others, but we’re also better placed to help and provide support for the people around us when they need it.
- Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
- Play the first mindful mantra practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps.
- Then close your eyes while this meditation plays to experience using the loving-kindness practice.
Suggested weekly practice
- Notice when you take on other people’s feelings – feeling with rather than feeling for
- Explore the difference between empathy and compassion during the week
- Try using the loving-kindness practice as a meditation, but also when you are out and about. For instance, sending loving-kindness to strangers on public transport.
Share on Follow on