Empathy or Compassion?

If you haven’t read any of Matthieu Ricard’s work, I encourage you to do so. He is a Buddhist monk who left a career in cellular genetics to study Buddhism over forty-five years ago. I discovered his book, Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, and the discovery was timely as I was struggling to understand a change happening within me.

I denied it was happening, because I couldn’t bear to think of it. Our regular Monday morning hospice visits were approaching, but I felt different. In place of anticipation was a feeling that I had hoped would never venture into my psyche. For 4 ½ years and hundreds of hours of service, I found myself pushing back against a tsunami of feelings that I continued to deny myself. When I finally reached out to someone to help me understand what was happening, we named the 600-pound gorilla sitting silently in the middle of the room.

Its name: Fatigue. The feeling was dread.

silhouette of fatigued woman with frazzled hair who feels empathy

I cried. I just hugged Buckley, and I cried. I hated thinking about it – just hated it. I didn’t think it could happen to me. When it did, I was caught off guard by the sudden, tremendous impact. Just then, I remembered a story someone told me about a comparison made between “friendship bankruptcy” and money bankruptcy. Bankruptcy doesn’t happen all at once; it happens little by little. . .then all of a sudden. I was afraid I was on the verge of “compassion bankruptcy,” and it scared the hell out of me.

I began to retrace my steps, and I started to do some research (as a nerd Dr. is wont to do) followed by continued reflection. I found that 60% of health care and social work employees experience these same feelings over the course of their careers; oftentimes, it leads to very high turnover rates which only further increase health care costs. Matthieu Ricard, speak to me: how do we stop this?

It started to become very clear that I was operating solely in the realm of empathy. Empathy can either be affective or cognitive. Affective empathy is the emotional state of empathy. In other words, when someone is feeling happy, we feel happy; when they feel sad, we feel sad. Cognitive empathy is when one attempts to put oneself in the shoes of another – to imagine what they are feeling. To truly resonate with someone, we “connect” with them through empathy. BUT. . .when empathy alone is our approach, we start to feel empathetic distress, even to the point where empathetic associations can become overwhelmingly negative. The suffering of others truly does become our suffering. Left on its own, we will find ourselves avoiding over-empathizing to spare that suffering. In other words, we burn out.


We start to operate differently. We become empathetic, feel loving kindness, then act with compassion. Stick with me here – I think I can explain.

group of adults sitting in a circle showing emotional support for a friend

Empathy alone is, as Mr. Ricard explains, like a water pump that operates without water; it works initially but will quickly burn out. It cannot affect change, and it does nothing to relieve suffering. In fact, increases suffering by sharing those feelings with someone else. In empathy alone, there is no action – only feeling.

When we take action, we enter into loving kindness and compassion. Loving kindness is simply the state of being in every living thing which desires to experience happiness; compassion is the action taken to eliminate suffering. Actions are the water supplying the pump. When we recognize suffering, we feel empathy. Experiencing loving kindness prompts us to eliminate the suffering through acts of compassion.

So what’s going on with me?

Physically, I have been operating in the realm of loving kindness and compassion, but for years I have been parked in the psychological parking lot of empathy. I continually burden myself with more and more distress instead of focusing on the act of compassion through loving kindness.

In other words, I feel the suffering, and I carry it. When we leave our clients, though, I fail to feel the relief from suffering that they feel – even if that relief is only for the short time we visited. It is that relief from suffering, that product of the act of compassion, that I was missing. In this cycle, burnout cannot take hold, but empathy, loving kindness, and acts of compassion must work together to complete it. The complete cycle looks like this:

  1. Feel Empathy: Recognize and associate with suffering.
  2. Experience Loving Kindness: Desire for all involved to experience happiness.
  3. Act with Compassion: Act to relieve suffering, and enjoy that relief.
  4. Repeat.

I am now a recovering empathyaholic. It’s a thing. Thank you, Mr. Ricard.


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