The Downside of Empathy: Compassion is Much Better

Many people seem to promote the value of empathy. Brené Brown’s 2013 YouTube video on empathy had 19 million views and all the reviews were positive. She was contrasting empathy with sympathy and made many good points. It certainly made empathy seem like a very important way to care about others.

However, it turns out that empathy is not necessarily a totally positive characteristic but rather one that results in pain for the empathic person. Certainly, being empathic results in people feeling understood and appreciated when they share things they are struggling with, but it can be exhausting and painful for the person responding empathically. It turns out that a more positive response is to activate our ability to be compassionate.

In the outstanding book Compassionomics by Trzeciak and Mazzarelli, the authors studied the impact of compassion on health outcomes in hospitals and other medical settings. They suggest that their research can provide insights on compassion expressed in other settings beyond the medical ones that sparked their interest in studying this concept, like in the family, communities, organizations.

They define compassion as “the emotional response to another’s pain or suffering, involving an authentic desire to help.” Their research suggests that compassion calms psychological responses to stress. They differentiate compassion from empathy, noting that empathy is a feeling component that when evoked, impacts the pain centers in the brain. When a person is demonstrating compassion (the action component of trying to reduce another person’s suffering), a very different part of the brain is activated: the reward pathway associated with affiliation and positive emotion.  

Later in the book the authors describe their research that shows that compassionate responses when someone experiences something traumatic, like a car accident, greatly reduces the potential for that person to go on to experience PTSD. Early in the book they note that, “the body of scientific evidence supports the idea that compassion actually protects the species.” They also suggest that we can think of it like this: “empathy is feeling; compassion is action…Empathy hurts, but compassion heals.”

At the end of her video Brené Brown says: “Because the truth is, rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.” In a way I think she was describing what happens in conversations that are more based on compassion than empathy.

If you are an empath as I am, this helps explain why being automatically empathic at someone’s pain, or even when seeing touching movies or commercials, that it’s not necessarily a pleasant experience. In many cases it can be very depressing. Knowing that empathy activates the part of the brain associated with experiencing pain, that reaction makes sense. Working to replace empathy, or using empathy as a springboard for being compassionate, offers us a way to activate the reward system in our brain.

It appears that compassion is a feel-good brain experience!

Invitation for Reflection

  1. If you have a tendency to be highly empathic, have you noticed that you often feel emotionally drained and even depressed after interacting with someone who is struggling or grieving?
  2. Does the information here, especially about how the brain responds, help you better understand your neurobiological reactions to your empathic reactions?
  3. What are some ways you can take action, like being compassionate, when you have a strong empathic response so you can activate your brain’s reward system?