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As humans, we’re wired to feel emotions — our own, but also those of others. Modern neuroscience has actually proven that we’ve evolved to feel empathy: Our brains have specific circuits that enable us to “feel with” others. Seeing someone in pain can cause us pain. Some might call it emotional intelligence, others sensitivity. Terms aside, feeling for others is actually part of our survival.
Of course, some of us are more wired for empathy than others. Surely we all have certain friends and family members we’re more likely to call in times of need — presumably because they’re better at “feeling with” than others. This too has been proven by science: The neural circuits in our brains related to empathy can either be activated or not. Anxiety and stress often put a damper on our ability to empathize with others. Or in other cases, we may overidentify with others’ experiences and lose sight of our own needs. The idiom “I feel your pain” can actually be literal. This can be a good thing or not.
As a meditation teacher, I’ve taught several workshops to people in caregiving roles — whether mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters or hospice workers, chaplains, doctors, and therapists. People who regularly spend much of their energy caring for others can exhaust themselves to the point of burnout, a state typically described as a mix of stress, anger, depression, and frustration. To avoid burnout, caregivers need to practice self-care. This is something most of us relate to, whether or not we “officially” identify as caregiving. It can be easy to push our needs aside when we face others in pain. But the irony is that burnout makes us lose our ability to be there for anyone—others and ourselves alike.
In 2004, a neuroscientist named Tania Singer and her colleagues published an important research study that showed how pain-receptive regions in the brain activate when we feel empathy with someone else’s pain. Since their paper came out, Singer has called empathy a “precursor to compassion,” differentiating these two words we too often use interchangeably. In an interview with the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Singer explained the difference: “When I empathize with the suffering of others…I am suffering myself…In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we…feel concern — a feeling of love and warmth — and we can develop a strong motivation to help the other.”
In other words, too much empathy can cause us to burn out. The mechanism of compassion is different — it often motivates us to help. Singer further explained that the neural circuits dictating empathy and compassion are different: The former increase painful emotions, while the latter are associated with positive feelings. The key to cultivating resilience — balancing empathy and compassion — begins with awareness. From there, we can be more skillful about how we engage with feelings of empathy and compassion, navigating our own challenges alongside those of others.
So, how do we get more skillful?
1. We can recognize that compassion is not just a feeling, but a skill.
While we typically think of compassion as benefiting others in need, almost like pity, it’s actually a broader attitude toward living, one that also helps us practice self-care. Neuroscience has also shown that when we act compassionately, our vagal tone — the neural connection between our brain, heart, and other organs — increases. This releases oxytocin, the feel-good neuropeptide that calms the sympathetic nervous system, including the fight-or-flight (fear) response. That means decreased blood pressure and heart rate, reduced inflammation, even strengthened immunity. Cultivating compassion is a practice — much like meditation or even lifting weights.
2. We can relate to our own pain with kindness and acceptance.
We don’t push our pain away, nor do we pretend it’s there and not painful. We treat ourselves with compassion, as it provides us a foundation of self-care from which we can also relate to others with compassion.
3. We can let go of the need for validation, praise, or love to soothe our own pain.
If we try to deny our pain, we may be more inclined to judge others for their painful experiences. On the other hand, many of us try to soothe our own pain by latching onto the idea of “fixing” the difficult situations of others. But if we truly allow ourselves to feel our own pain, we simply open up to being there for others. We see pain as universal, as well as our shared desire for happiness.
Taking care of our own needs is a form of expressing boundaries, which is certainly difficult. But if we don’t respect our boundaries, we endanger our mental health, physical health, and well-being at large.
No matter how helpful we are or want to be, we all have limits and boundaries we need to express. Compassion for others isn’t something we need to devote ourselves to full-time. It’s a state of being, an attitude, a mode of perception. And with it, we open ourselves up to a more direct way of relating to ourselves, others, and our experiences.