The Difference Between Empathy and Compassion

Notes from my talk with Erica on March 9:

Difference between compassion and empathy
Empathy [feel what the person feels] —> empathy fatigue: feel tired and guilty
Compassion —> holding space for their story
witness—> lets them know their experience is valuable
I am not responsible for taking care of their pain
thank you [response of witnesses to grief writing]
also lets them know you value them
Compassionate act confers dignity

Difference between Compassion and Empathy

When you feel empathy, you feel what the person feels.  You tend to feel sorry for them and want to help them, or think that you ought to help them.  A lot of this can wear you out.  You start feeling tired and guilty.

When you feel compassion, you also feel what the person feels, but there’s more distance, you are more of a witness.  You hold space for their story, which lets them know that their experience is valuable.

I think of the work I did in the grief workshop and in Writers for Recovery.  We wrote in response to a prompt:   “I remember…”   “I wish someone would ask me…”  The prompts would generate stories, which we might have been uncomfortable reading aloud, except that we knew that everyone in the group shared the same basic experience.  So when we listen to someone reading their story, we know exactly what that feels like.  We don’t feel like we are supposed to make it all right for them.  Mostly we don’t even know how to make it all right for ourselves.  But our friendly listening confers dignity on them.  Often it does help.  To have someone listen to your awful experience without judgement is often the start of healing.

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