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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Do You Care Too Much?


Being kind and empathetic (empathic is - according to many online grammar sites - exactly the same as empathetic) with those who suffer is a wonderful trait to have ... until you begin to burn out. Many people both in my professional, as well as personal life tell me about the pain they feel because of those for whom they feel empathy - whether they work with them as patients or clients, or they are friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, or neighbours. They may even be people with whom they work on a volunteer basis locally or anywhere in the world. And eventually, of course, such pain evolves into burn-out, because you can't spend all your time feeling others' pain and suffering and not be affected in very important ways.

Does this mean that it's better not to be empathetic? Does it mean you should hold yourself back from the pain and suffering of others? Doe it mean you should try not to feel? Certainly not!

However, it does mean that it may be very important to distinguish between empathy and compassion.

A common definition for empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

A common definition for compassion (particularly in Buddhist thought) is wanting others to be free from suffering.

Note that empathy involves sharing the feelings of others, whereas compassion involves desiring that others be free from pain.

In my work as a holistic psychotherapist with an emphasis not only on the mind, but also on the emotions, the body and the spirit, you can imagine I hear a great many stories of pain. Present pain, past pain, and future expected or imagined pain. If I were to empathetically enter the pain of my clients, I would soon be of little use to them. Or I would need to have frequent breaks in order to replenish my energy and spirit. The same happens, of course, to all those who are kind and empathetic with others, even if we're not talking about professional relationships.

So I learned long ago - thanks to Buddhist thought again - to work with compassionate detachment, meaning that while I very much focus on being as instrumental as possible in moving people forward to a state of less suffering, I remain detached from the actual feelings that are being expressed. Does that make me a lesser 'helper'? Not only do I not think so, but I believe that those who - as I do - work with compassionate detachment, are better suited to help others, precisely because we don't get caught up in the feelings. Clearly, having lived a rich life which includes a rather large dose of my own suffering and pain, is normally a prerequisite, because although I may never have endured the identical situation a client is recounting, I nevertheless am well acquainted with pain. But by not getting into the other's feeling state, I am able to remain in a place where I am more able to be of use.

If you disagree with what I've expressed here, I'd urge you to have a look at Matthieu Ricard's (he is a Buddhist monk of French origin who works closely with the Dalai Lama) Google Talk on Altruism (if you watch the much shorter TED talk he gave on the same subject, you will not hear about what follows). In the Google talk he tells the story of what happened to him when - in scientific research on the brain in which he participated - he was asked to meditate on empathy as opposed to compassion. You may find it eye-opening.

Image by h.koppdelaney

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