Compassion over empathy

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Someone who read a recent post, Power inhibits empathy, pointed me to an article about the work of Tania Singer, the director of the Department of Social Neuroscience at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, and an expert in empathy and compassion.

In a DLD Women lecture in 2012, Singer made the case that empathy is a dangerous emotion, because a too strong association of the self with others that may be suffering can lead to mirroring the sense of suffering ourselves. And in the case of professionals, this can lead to empathy burnout. She suggests that we need to be compassionate, not empathetic:

Olivia Solon, Compassion over empathy could help prevent emotional burnout

For Singer, empathy is “a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can lead to antisocial behaviour”. For example, healthcare workers or caregivers who are frequently faced with trauma victims can become intensely distressed themselves, feel overwhelmed and burn out. Brain scans have shown that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers and the one who feels empathy. So empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.

In order to avoid this, we need to transform empathy into compassion. Compassion is a feeling of pity or a warm, caring emotion that does not involve feeling, say, sadness if the other person is sad. In order to better understand compassion, Singer has studied Buddhist monks — renowned for being experts in “pro-social” meditation and compassion. When they watched videos of other people suffering, fMRI scans of their brains showed heightened activity in areas that are important to care, nurturing and positive social affiliation. In non-meditators, the videos were more likely to trigger the brain areas associated with unpleasant feelings of sadness and pain.

In the future, when I discuss empathy as a necessary element of leadership, I will stress that those feelings need to be channeled into compassion, a more sustainable mindset.