April 28th, 2016 by Dr. Nina Asher

People often speak of compassion fatigue as the ongoing depletion that accompanies caring for another person. The more I practice psychotherapy, and the teachings of insight meditation, the more I think what those of us in the caregiving professions, or in caregiving roles feel is not compassion fatigue, but rather empathy fatigue.

Although empathy and compassion are similar, the terms often used interchangeably, these two concepts differ in several ways.

Empathy asks us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We reach out into their pain, as our neural, hard-wired systems work at identifying with whatever is being felt. Empathy asks us to have a vicarious experience of another person’s feelings, thoughts or attitudes. This quality often implies that we, as listeners or responders be in harmony, or agreement with the person in need of our empathy. That is, the condition of one person induces a parallel or reciprocal condition in the other.

Those of us in the helping professions know that we can tune into a client and actually feel for them in whatever they are experiencing. We care about the other person as we reach into their feelings and reflect back our concern. This empathic wiring has served humanity well. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to sense what those in pain might need.

However, empathy calls for a hierarchical relationship between two people in which the empathizer enters into the world of the person in need of understanding. It is through empathic reflection and mirroring from one to the other that allows a person/client to be heard.

In contrast, compassion begins with caring for oneself first, and in that, opening to care for another. Christopher Germer, psychologist and meditation practitioner says “ Self-compassion is taking care of ourselves just as we’d treat someone we love dearly.” When we beat ourselves up for struggling, making mistakes, or simply feeling sad or angry, we stray from compassion for ourselves. Why wouldn’t we allow ourselves the same kind of care and warmth we extend to others who are suffering?

Compassion asks us to accept all parts of ourselves, even the ones in which we struggle. It is in the seeing of our problems that we can begin to accept them as teachers. As caregivers, we can help clients turn towards their pain as we not only empathize, but hold or witness the whole experience with acceptance and compassion.

Pain is not an abstract concept. We all feel pain, but we often believe that we are alone, no one understands what we feel, and we are the only ones to have had this experience. We are in a contracted state of need. Compassion creates an expansive container in which suffering is known.

We share the pain of another because although the stories are different, the underlying fear, pain, or shame is universal. We cultivate compassion as we draw from the wholeness of our experience, including all parts. We meet the other person from a place of “We are all in this together. Your story may differ from mine, but we all have and will suffer; and we all will die.”

From this perspective, we are not so different from each other. Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, says, “Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It is a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”

Whereas empathy helps the person in pain, compassion is like a loop of connection and love. It is inclusive and reciprocal. In holding compassion for another, we are also receiving compassion back. It is an invisible, often wordless flow of all-encompassing space of acceptance. It feeds back, and unlike empathy, it is not experienced as fatiguing.