Compassion is a Skill

by Robbie Lloyd

Compassion is a skill we can all learn, not just feeling empathy

Suffering has been ramped up across our lives over the past two years of drought, fire, floods, job losses and COVID, to the point where pretty well all of us are “OVER IT!” But this shared experience of suffering has also increased our empathy for each other and even strangers in some wonderful ways. Many folks I know have told stories of being impressed by how much kinder people have been lately.

Don’t expect that to last. Not because we all revert to being nasty, in denial or avoiding others’ suffering when things are good, but because we get worn out by continuously exercising empathy, without knowing how to handle ourselves with it in a healthy way. It’s commonly known, incorrectly, as “Compassion Fatigue.”

Dr Debbie Ling from Monash University in Melbourne is a compassion expert, and she helps people to work with their “Compassionate Self,” to understand what’s needed to put into practice healthy boundaries around how we care for ourselves and others with empathy.

It turns out that when we emotionally resonate with someone’s suffering, it can drain us of our own energy and lead to fatigue. This is called “Empathic distress.” It can happen when we respond to suffering in ways that increase our own Empathic Distress, rather than exercising Empathic Concern while maintaining our own positive state of mind and heart.

People who work in palliative care need to master this skill, or else they’d be in a constant state of grief. Similarly clergy, funeral directors and counsellors. 

The spectrum of empathic responses here might be described as going from Avoidance or Denial (of others’ suffering), to Cognitive Empathy (where we intellectually understand others’ perspective), to Affective Empathy (Feeling with Emotional Resonance), to Self-focused Empathic Distress (where our own pain network is triggered by the other person’s experiences), to Empathic Concern that still leaves room for a positive state of mind while acting compassionately.

Similar to the skills in Buddhist mindset training, if we can hold the others’ experience in our hearts and minds as “They are just like me, and wish to be happy and not to suffer,” we can be freed to exercise active care and practical support, without being exhausted by the fatigue of empathic distress.