Desire. This may seem like a strange place to start a blog post designed to address the categories of compassion and empathy, but in order to join this conversation in a meaningful way, I believe desire is where the conversation must begin and end. In my recent post on self-care, I referenced the purpose of desire: more desire. In other words, desire is both generative and regenerative. Engagement with desire is necessarily engagement with the Infinite, the Eternal, the Divine. Our desires are what differentiate us from each other as people uniquely designed in the image of God. Our desires get us out of bed in the morning, and our desires nuance our particularities as people who were fearfully and wonderfully made, fashioned before the existence of time. Movements of desire are at the heart of one’s spirituality. Separated from one’s desire, one’s sense of purpose, meaning, and unfolding will quickly wither and die. Spirituality is opening oneself to something greater than oneself, which often necessitates a clear orientation to pain and suffering.
Now enter a conversation of compassion and empathy. As a counseling professional, I have been raised on a steady diet of empathy. As a category and a construct, empathy has shown up in many counseling texts: those that taught me counseling theories, counseling skills, and set the larger frame of the counseling profession. I didn’t have much reason to give this a second thought until I ran across the work of Martin Buber, whose I and Thou (1971) does not necessarily tolerate empathy as an option if one is seeking to be present and to engage in a holistic dialogue with another. As I listened to Buber’s call to “the space between” the I and the Thou wherein “one person happens to another” and where all of meaningful life and existence is found in the moments of meeting between one and the other, I found myself asking the question: what is the difference between empathy and compassion? Might a pursuit of empathy exclude the moments of meeting Buber pointed to? Might compassion, or that which Jesus seemed to live and breathe in the Christian scriptures, offer a greater likelihood of the meetings of mutuality and reciprocity that Buber envisioned?
In asking that question, a group of students and I completed a review of the counseling literature pertaining to empathy and compassion, and we found that the field and its constituents seemed as uncertain as I was. Sometimes these terms were used interchangeably, but other times they seemed to reference rather different things.
As a counselor-educator, I began to wonder about the efficacy of teaching and learning one over the other, and as a Christian, I couldn’t run from my understanding that Jesus did not teach empathy, but rather, compassion.
The word compassion comes from the Latin compati, and it means to “suffer with.” In surveying the literature on compassion, it is the “withness” that is made possible in and through compassion that I find to be the most compelling. Researchers (Bibeau, Dionne, & Leblanc, 2015; Fehse, Silveira, Elvers, & Blautzik, 2014; Fernardo & Consedine, 2014; Greenberg & Turksma, 2015) have tethered compassion not just to a felt experience, but also to a desire to move towards and/or to connect with another who is experiencing pain and suffering.
Empathy is, in part, about the alleviation of pain for the person providing it, whereas compassion extends to affiliation and the rewards of social connection (Klimeckii et al., 2013; Stickle, 2016). Can you hear the significant difference here? One alleviates the pain of the “giver” (not the receiver!), and the other brings reward through connection (withness).
The everyday definition of empathy I’ve been handed through the years is a willingness to place oneself in another’s shoes. Even though empathy can be both simple (cognitive) and complex (affective) (Bussey et al., 2015), I can say my working experience with it through the years has trended towards the simple or cognitive, with its task being largely to understand the experience(s) of another. If one surveys social scenes across the United States of America, they may see cultural awakenings happening in places where people are acknowledging the impact of Western colonization and the ways it has led to the oppression of multiple people groups, including (but not limited to) BIPOC folks. What is more, if one looks at the scientific methods used in the West, one will also see the privileging of understanding over experience, with the former resting on the laurels of data quantifications, and the latter dismissed as “woo woo” or nonempirical. Pair an impulse to colonize with a tendency to reify (to see a piece or part of someone as the whole of who they are) by way of empiricism and one might just get a field of helping professionals who see it as their job to empathize with those folks they serve, rather than a field full of folks who have purposed to move with the withness of desire. Empathy may end up as another (intended or unintended) casualty of colonization and of oppressive systems bent towards maintaining the status quo of power. The helping professional’s felt sense of spirituality in their work may dissipate, leaving them with little but a hollow shell of roles and obligations.
Common to the helping and healing professions is the reality of burnout, or what has been commonly referred to as compassion fatigue. My wondering is whether this may be a misplaced construct and if the greater likelihood is that one would experience empathy fatigue, rather than compassion fatigue. If empathy requires me to leave my own sense of locatedness and join with another where they are, then I may run the risk of leaving my own personhood behind. This was Buber’s contention (1971): to engage with another (“thou”), one must locate oneself firmly in an “I.” Dialogue can only emerge in the spaces between two people who are firmly rooted and rooting in their own experience(s). Empathy may require less of an “I,” and more of a “you,” which could very well drain the system of the person looking to afford care. What is more, the “you” of another can quickly turn towards objectification (reification), with empathy becoming a moment of object-to-object transaction rather than a subject-to-subject experience.
I find great encouragement in Brene Brown’s findings (2015), that levels of compassion positively correlate with healthy boundary setting. In other words, the withness of compassion can bring or perpetuate a sense of health and wholeness within a relationship. When two people get to be people and to experience the belonging that such withness affords, the possibility of health, healing, and restoration grows. I believe the realities of COVID-19 have opened a wormhole wherein helping professionals will be required to engage with a sense of withness that pre-COVID practice did not require. Though I don’t know all of what this will mean or may look like, I already find it happening in my conversations with others. Maybe the crisis of pandemic is the very thing that has been needed to (re)orient a field that has skewed in the direction of power (empathy), rather than desire (compassion). Maybe, when it comes to helping professionals, the urgency of this pandemic will necessitate attention and care first for oneself so as to promote care for another (Bibeau et al., 2015), thereby opening spaces for those helping professionals to move past the alleviation of pain that empathy offers to the reward of affiliation made possible through compassion. Pandemic seems to (re)turn each of us to ourselves and to the potential to (re)orient to our desires, and my hope is that it will also (re)orient and (re)turn the fields of helping professionals to their constituents with the health made possible in and through the withness of desire that sits at the heart of compassion.
Bibeau, M., Dionne, F., & Leblanc, J. (2015). Can compassion meditation contribute to the development of psychotherapists’ empathy? A review. Mindfulness, 7(1), 255-263. doi:10.1007/s12671-015-0439-y
Buber, M. (1971). I and thou. (Walter Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Touchstone.
Bussey, K., Quinn, C., & Dobson, J. (2015). The moderating role of empathic concern and perspective taking on the relationship between moral disengagement and aggression. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 61(1), 10–29.
Brown, B (2015). Rising strong: The reckoning, the rumble, the revolution. New York, NY: Random House.
Fehse, K., Silveira, S., Elvers, K., & Blautzik, J. (2014). Compassion, guilt and innocence: An fMRI study of responses to victims who are responsible for their fate. Social Neuroscience, 10(3), 243-252. doi:10.1080/17470919.2014.980587
Fernando, A.T. III, & Consedine, N.S., (2014, August). Beyond compassion fatigue: The transactional model of physician compassion. Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, 48(2), 289-298.
Greenberg, M. T., & Turksma, C. (2015). Understanding and watering the seeds of compassion. Research in Human Development, 12(3-4), 280-287. doi:10.1080/15427609.2015.1068060
Klimecki, O. M., Leiberg, S., Ricard, M., & Singer, T. (2013). Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience,9(6), 873-879. doi:10.1093/scan/nst060
Stickle, M. (2016). The expression of compassion in social work practice. Journal of Religion & Spirituality in Social Work: Social Thought, 35(1-2), 120-131. doi:10.1080/15426432.2015.1067587