Updated February 9, 2019
In my line of work in the healthcare field, the concepts of empathy and compassion are familiar terms, but they are often confused, misunderstood or used interchangeably. It’s important to understand that they are separate and unique characteristics unto themselves. Empathy is the state of actually being able to feel what another is feeling and involves being affected by their emotions. Compassion is caring for and experiencing the feelings of others without internalizing those feelings. The internal influence of empathy is what leads to the more active and less overwhelming response of compassion. The two are most definitely intertwined. The following information will delve further into the connection between empathy and compassion, with explanations of how understanding the relationship can be used in your personal life.
Empathy and Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a complex concept whose definition can be simplified as the extent to which an individual successfully manages their emotions. It is comprised of 18 skills, one of which is empathy. Emotionally intelligent people can regulate their own feelings in ways that allow them to successfully interact with others and build healthy interpersonal relationships. High levels tend to correlate with overall life success and fulfillment. Empathy is strongly relevant to the “Relationship Management” portion of this concept.
Other research has connected at least 10 segments of the brain to the function of empathy. It is believed that malfunctions in these areas lead to low levels of the ability to experience the feelings of others. Followers of this school of thought believe that cruelness can’t exist when empathy is present. So those with sufficient functioning of empathic portions of the brain are less likely to engage in acts that exhibit harm, while individuals whose brains have been compromised within these segments are more likely to lack empathy. Finally, the existence of “in-group” and “out-group” empathy have been proven to exist. The crux of these concepts is that we are more likely to express empathy for others we perceive as being more like us and to dehumanize or lack care for groups we see as “other.”
Transformation of Empathy into Compassion
Having a basic understanding of the physiological ways in which empathy manifests can help us to discover ways to increase an inclination toward internalizing the feelings of others and then transitioning that objective state into the more proactive approach of compassion. This knowledge can go a long way toward identifying patterns in your emotional responses. For example, paying attention to your feelings and the ways in which you react to them can increase your overall emotional intelligence, instilling more empathy. When you notice an uncomfortable feeling arise, observe what you’re doing at the time, along with your surroundings.
When it comes to increasing the brain functions that are connected to empathy, consider taking up the practice of mindful meditation. Buddhists monks who engage in this form of meditation are some of the most compassionate individuals. Evidence from MRI scans of the brains of monks show that areas of brain function related to care light up when they are exposed to videos of people’s suffering. Taking time to intentionally be mindful of your current state of being can help to instill an internal leaning toward empathy.
Because feelings of empathy lead to acts of compassion, it’s important to focus on ways to increase your capacity to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Any concerted effort toward building an awareness of what guides your feelings and an attempt at being mindful in each moment can help you to benefit from this connection between empathy and compassion.
Using a Journal to Explore Compassion and Empathy
One effective way to explore compassion and empathy is through the use of a journal. Taking time to understand your own feelings and their motivations can lead to better insight into the condition of others. Furthermore, therapeutic writing can influence how you relate to the world at large.
Benefits of Journal Writing
Whether you’re writing about the events of your day, your feelings toward specific occurrences or a story that is completely made up, you can gain a great deal of benefit from journal writing. The process of writing and seeing your words in front of you can be a great way to process your feelings, breaking down such aspects as cause or commonalities. Journaling is also beneficial when it comes to cultivating gratitude by recognizing what matters most to you and the ways in which you are fortunate. When pursuing this type of writing, take care not to allow your gratitude to push you toward complacency, as that’s the direct opposite of your intention. Instead, focus on the ways in which it would feel not to possess such things.
Making a habit of writing can be therapeutic in simply allowing you to capture and reflect on wonderful memories. Such a feel-good moment can push you to want to spread joy to others. It can also increase the chances that what you write down will stay in your mind for a longer period. Engaging in the physical act of putting words to paper, or even screen to an extent, has proven to facilitate retention of information. Writing fiction can be an even more effective way to gain empathetic understanding. The very process of character development requires imagining the ways in which your characters would feel and act in various situations. After all, you want your story to be believable and relatable.
A Helpful Journal Exercise
If you’re stuck on where to start with your writing, consider one of the following writing exercises as inspiration. If you have children, involving them in selected exercises is likely to provide them with the same benefits toward gaining compassion and empathy. Plus, it’s just fun. Get creative by creating a family or individual kindness journal. Decorating a notebook to use as your writing space can exercise your creativity and get you in a mindset to begin the writing process. Write down what you’re thankful for, brainstorm a list of ways to be kind to others, compose an essay about a time in which someone was kind to you or jot down a poem dedicated to such topics. You can even draw pictures or use other forms of visual expression.
Flex your empathy muscles by writing from another’s perspective. You can use a time in your life when you acted inconsiderately toward someone as inspiration or make something up based on an experience outside your own. Use your values as a prompt for journaling. Write about what you value in life. Then you can expand upon the reasons behind each. Even better, you may want to brainstorm ways in which others may hold different values and the potential benefits these may afford.
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Process the Information
All of this information is of little use if you don’t take the time to examine its meaning. There is potential for these exercises to take effect in some ways simply through the process of completing them, but it’s more likely some dedicated thought will be required in order to glean their lessons and implement them. After each journaling exercise or two, reflect upon any insight you can gather. Write down the lessons with regard to empathy and compassion, making them more concrete. Ask others for their opinion if you feel stuck. Someone who knows you well may be able to help things to click if you’re unable to see the big picture. Once you’ve gained a better personal understanding of the ways in which empathy and compassion work, you’ll be more likely to employ them in the real world.
Call to Action: Though it can be challenging and requires a great deal of emotional work, using a journal to explore compassion and empathy is worth the effort. You’ll learn about yourself, your motivations and the ways in which you can utilize your unique gifts on behalf of those in need.