Empathy Precedes Compassion

Empathy minus the feeling of being overwhelmed moves us in the direction of compassion. It enables us to be a loving force for good in the world.
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Loving couple sitting on a bench enjoying the sun
Loving couple sitting on a bench enjoying the sun

There are lots of reasons we might not want to have empathy or "feel with" another person. Here are a few I have heard myself thinking. Do you think anything like this?

  • This person deserves his hard times -- he has been acting like a jerk! Why should I engage with his pain?

  • Here she goes again. If I show empathy she will just sing the "victim song" even longer.
  • I don't have the emotional bandwidth to suffer along with anyone else right now. It just hurts too much.
  • All of these comments contain some truth. People do often create their own pain. All of us play the "victim" sometimes (some people love the role and do it a lot!). And some days we feel overwhelmed and can barely handle our own lives. And there is such a thing as too much empathy -- a topic I will take up in a future post.

    Yet I am committed to living a life aligned with my understanding of spiritual intelligence. I want to behave with wisdom and compassion, while maintaining inner and outer peace, as much of the time as possible. And I believe being able to feel empathy in any situation is a skill I want to have at the ready. I see empathy as a piece of compassion-building. Why?

    I use this four-level hierarchy to explain the differences between apathy, sympathy, empathy and compassion.

    1. Apathy = I don't care. You are unimportant to me.

  • Sympathy = I see you and I am feel sorry about your plight. This can feel like one-up/one-down. The person I "feel sympathy for" may feel pitied -- which doesn't feel good. But this is a step up from apathy. I might donate money or express concern from sympathy.
  • Empathy = I feel what you feel. This is a peer-to-peer experience. When you are sad, I feel the sadness in my body/mind/heart. This has a genuine caring texture to the person who is suffering. But you might feel like you are riding the emotional rollercoaster of emotions. You and I might feel unsafe and distance ourselves if feeling another's pain becomes too much.
  • Compassion = I feel what you feel and it doesn't overwhelm my circuits. My wisdom circuits remain active and I modulate my emotional state. I see a larger picture. I act skillfully to relieve suffering where I can, or to sit with people who just need accompaniment in their pain (or their joy).
  • We may begin with apathy (lack of attention or concern) for someone or something. Then we may learn how to have sympathy for the suffering of others. Empathy moves us to feel with, to suffer with or rejoice with others. From empathy we can build to the next step -- compassion. Compassion is distinguished by its universality (I have compassion for all) and by the lack of panic or fear in it. Empathy at a global level is overwhelming. Compassion is not overwhelming because it is partnered with wisdom. Compassion sees a larger picture.

    In my model of spiritual intelligence, and in my own life experience, I see no path to compassion that doesn't take us through empathy first. So I knew early in my research that I really need to understand empathy. Fortunately wonderful research has been and continues to be done in this field.

    Empathy is a core emotional intelligence (EQ) skill -- being one of the 18 skills in the Emotional Competence Inventory (ECI 2.0) created by Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis. They define it as "sensing others' feelings and perspectives, and taking an active interest in their concerns." It is a crucial skill for developing many of the social skills listed in the ECI fourth quadrant, labeled "Relationship Management" (or "Social Skills"). If you have read my book, you know that I have modeled the SQ four quadrants and 21 skills as a "vertical step up" from the ECI four quadrants and 18 skills. SQ and EQ are tightly connected.

    In The Science of Evil: on Empathy and Cruelty (2012), Simon Baron-Cohen explains that neuroscience research has shown that there are quite a few parts of the brain (10 or more) involved in the experience of empathy. He calls these parts of the brain "the empathy circuit." He proposes that the best way to think about evil is to consider that cruelty cannot occur in the face of empathy since empathy acts as a natural brake on hurting others. How can we hurt another if we are causing equal pain to ourselves? It is an interesting hypothesis. One he hopes will be testable.

    Baron-Cohen notes that not everyone who has low empathy is cruel. But he suggests we should hold the hypothesis that all people who are evil or cruel are failing to experience empathy, at least at that moment. In other words, cruelty at a minimum requires that our empathy-brakes have failed. He points out that there are many factors that cause us to not have enough empathy. These include malfunctions in any part of the brain's empathy circuit. Questions naturally arise. How much is inborn or genetic? How much is developmental -- e.g., trauma in childhood at key moments of brain development? How much is social conditioning?

    There are external situations that can shut down our empathy, either for the long term or the short term. There is phenomenon labeled "in-group / out-group" dynamics. When we make someone part of an "out-group," we are saying they are not like us -- and we begin to dehumanize them. One group in power dehumanizes and attacks another that is seen as less valuable, less important, and not worthy of our empathy. This is what happens in a genocide. In a lesser form we see it in high schools and middle schools when "jocks," "geeks" or any other group makes another "less than us."

    In my next posts I will discuss further the ways we can develop our empathy, what gets in the way of empathy, and how to avoid feeling overwhelmed by empathy when confronted by the pain of the world. Empathy minus the feeling of being overwhelmed moves us in the direction of compassion. It enables us to be a loving force for good in the world.

    In the meantime I'd love your comments. What helps you open to empathy? What makes you tend to shut down?

    For more by Cindy Wigglesworth, click here.

    For more the spirit, click here.


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