There’s so much pain and suffering in the world that demands our compassion. Yet it’s easy to be resistant to feeling compassion, because we’re afraid it might overwhelm us. But there’s a distinction between compassion and empathetic distress that’s important to understand. We cover this difference and much more in our Brave Heart Compassion Cultivation Training, so consider joining us if you’re interested. 

What is Empathic Distress?

So, what is empathetic distress? It’s the feeling we get when we lose ourselves in those who are suffering, when we become overwhelmed and distressed by the pain we see and experience in others. People in the helping or healing profession are especially prone to merging their own identities with other people’s distress—but this can happen for anyone. In the current era, people are constantly exposed to an abundance of suffering just by watching the news or scrolling through Facebook. It’s incredibly easy for us to become overwhelmed. 

I’m a strong empath, and I used to experience tons of empathetic distress. I’ve worked with people on their greatest pains for over three decades. During this time, I had to learn how not to lose myself in this work, or else it would feel like I was drowning in their suffering. I needed to develop true compassion, and in doing so, I learned that acts of true compassion always leave us with a warm glow. 

For those experiencing empathic distress, I recommend internalizing and utilizing this simple mantra: “I’m not here for you, I’m here with you.”

What is Compassion?

Compassion is a quality of our essential being. It lives in all of our hearts and minds, and when we really tune into the source of our compassion, there are endless amounts of it.

Compassion, among other points, is:

  • An awareness and recognition of suffering, of oneself and others
  • A feeling of concern for, and connection to, the one who is suffering
  • A desire to relieve that suffering

More than just a loving feeling, “Compassion is a complex, unfolding process in the mind, heart, and body that shapes our responses to suffering. There is the situation and there is everything we bring to it.” –  Sharon Salzberg, as referenced in CCT

Keeping this definition in mind, there are three ways we can experience compassion: compassion for self, compassion for others, and compassion received from others. The benefits of experiencing and expressing compassion in these ways are numerous. Here are some examples of benefits:

  • Happiness
  • Resiliency
  • Improve our relationships with ourselves and others
  • We learn how to listen!
  • Increased joy and appreciation for our lives
  • Courage to be with suffering & take compassionate action
  • Is a source of peace in our hearts & minds

Take Action from Compassion & Not Empathetic Distress

Compassion, or empathic care, is characterized by tenderness, caring, openness, and warmth. Practicing compassion also leads to other related emotions such as positive feelings, love, good health, and connection. Compassion is sourced in our Healthy Self and is infinitely available, as it is connected to the Source and therefore feels natural and overflowing. All activities that build a stronger connection to the Healthy Self, like acts of self care, deep breathing, or mindfulness practices, also connect us with our true compassion.

In contrast, empathic distress is characterized by discomfort, upset, and suffering. Empathic distress leads to self-related emotions, stress, poor health, burnout, and withdrawal. This type of distress comes from both the Survivor and Wounded Self. It feels like an effort, is very limited, and always drains us. 

We’re much more useful to the world when we are truly compassionate versus when we are in empathic distress. Learning how to identify empathetic overwhelm and returning to a state of compassion is one of the most beautiful things about the Brave Heart Compassion Cultivation Training that we teach. Click here to learn more