If you've read a self-help book lately, or watched a talk show centered around making relationships better, chances are you've heard about the benefits of empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to feel, or attempt to feel, what another person feels in an instance of hardship, without being in their exact situation. "Put yourself in their shoes," the empathy advocate says. You'll notice this person is most likely to cry as though the pain they've witnessed is their very own. You come to admire the emotionally inclined people who wear their heart on their sleeve, and readily connect with others' pain, and help others to feel less alone. After all, some of the nation's most celebrated figures have touted the benefits of cultivating an empathetic way of being.
"The struggle of my life created empathy - I could relate to pain, being abandoned, having people not love me." - Oprah Winfrey
Empathy sounds great from this perspective, but is feeling pain related back to a moment in your past really necessary to make a positive impact in the world?The issue with empathy is that when someone feels it deeply, it can be debilitating, causing a shared rumination of negativity without proactive behaviors that ultimately helping the person experiencing hardship. Compassion, on the other hand, is all about seeking to understand someone's behaviors or the treatment of them, and rather than reverting to pity, the compassionate individual will seek out ways to logically think through how best to help, and act.
It all comes to to what your goal is: do you want to feel someone else's pain, or to help them? Some could say that empathy is a stepping stone to compassion. But beware: feeling empathy can be emotionally draining, and only focused on a select few, whereas compassion is more free-flowing. An added bonus of compassion is that it doesn't necessitate that you to have ever experienced something similar. We have more opportunity with more people to practice compassion, than we do empathy.
What do you think? Would you consider yourself empathetic, compassionate, or a combo? How do you feel when you engage in empathy versus compassion, and in which situations could you introduce more compassion into your, and thus others' lives?