Comer: The importance of showing compassion, not just empathy
Last week, I had my six-month checkup at the dentist office. As I am sure many can sympathize with, it’s hardly a day I anticipate with eagerness.
Thankfully, I don’t dread it as much as I once did.
My attitude toward going to the dentist changed about 10 years ago. I had just started going to a new clinic and was told that I needed a deeper cleaning than what was usually provided. On the day of the appointment, I was feeling extremely anxious because for several years I didn’t feel like I had been treated very well at any of the dentist offices I had gone to. To be clear, I was partly (mostly, really) to blame for not being treated to my liking. I hadn’t been taking care of my teeth as well as I should have, so the cleanings were often extremely painful. But I never liked the reaction from the hygienists. The message seemed to always be, “Because this is your fault, you’re going to have to deal with how painful this is. If you don’t want it to be so painful, take better care of your teeth.”
When I arrived for my deep cleaning, I asked the hygienist if he could provide some local anesthesia. Knowing how uncomfortable previous cleanings had been, I simply assumed that I would need it. He told me he really didn’t think I would. Despite his confidence, I remained skeptical, but he assured me that if I just gave him a chance, he felt like he could do the job without me feeling enough pain to warrant the anesthesia. He said he had it ready just in case, but he truly didn’t think I would need it. I decided to trust him, and before I knew it, the cleaning was over. The experience was only minimally uncomfortable. Furthermore, at each point during the cleaning when there was a little bit of pain, he apologized and tried to be more careful.
After he finished, I expressed my shock that everything had gone so well. His response was basically, “It doesn’t have to be all that painful. Yes, it’s more painful if you don’t take proper care of your teeth, but I don’t want it to be a horrible experience for you.”
For the record, I do a much better job taking care of my teeth now than I used to, but that hygienist’s approach has stuck with me throughout the years. I immediately thought of him recently because I was thinking about a certain word: compassion.
Compassion is a word that I’ve always felt like I understood, but really, I didn’t. Not until recently, at least. I’ve always thought of compassion as simply being nice to other people. But it’s a little bit more than that. Merriam-Webster defines compassion as “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” I’ve taken the liberty of italicizing the latter part of the definition because that is what sets compassion apart from empathy, which Merriam-Webster defines as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”
Indeed, you can feel empathy without having compassion. My hygienist could have shown empathy without compassion. He could have understood, been sensitive to and even vicariously experienced my emotions but still felt, “You know what, it sucks, but I’m just not going to worry about being extra careful because it is, in fact, your fault.”
In a Harvard Business Review article by Rasmus Hougaard, Jacqueline Carter and Marissa Afton titled “Connect with Empathy, But Lead with Compassion,” empathy and compassion are shown on a graph with the horizontal axis being labeled “understanding of the other’s experience” and the vertical axis being labeled “willingness to act to support,” with each going from less to more.
According to the article:
“At the bottom left, we have pity. When we experience pity, we have little willingness to act and little understanding of another’s experience. We simply feel sorry for them. Moving up the chart to the right, we experience sympathy. There is a small increase in our willingness to help and our understanding of the other. We feel for the other person.
“Moving up one more level, we come to empathy. With empathy, we have a close, visceral understanding of the other person’s experience. We feel with the person. We literally take on the emotions of the other person and make those feelings our own. Though a noble thing to do, it does not necessarily help the other person, except for possibly making them feel less lonely in their experience.
“Finally, at the top right, we have a good understanding of what the other person is experiencing and a willingness to act. Our understanding of the other person’s experience is greater than with empathy because we pull on our emotional awareness as well as rational understanding. Compassion occurs when we take a step away from empathy and ask ourselves what we can do to support the person who is suffering. In this way, compassion is an intention versus an emotion.”
With all that in mind, it certainly seems evident that compassion is harder than empathy, for it requires one to not merely understand and feel the emotions of others but to have a willingness to do something about it. But, as many people have learned, empathy can frankly be difficult enough and present its own challenges.
In an article titled “Turn Empathy into Compassion Without the Empathic Distress” on the website Psychology Today, Veronika Tait, an assistant professor at Snow College who holds a Ph.D. in social psychology from Brigham Young University, explained, “Empathy … has the potential to become empathic distress. This was described by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki as ‘a strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect oneself from excessive negative feelings.’ When I watched Harriet Tubman encounter hardship and death in the movie Harriet, I felt distressed. I wanted to turn away from her pain. Unfortunately, prolonged distress causes many in helping professions, such as doctors, nurses, and counselors, to burn out, endangering their own physical and mental health. Those experiencing empathic distress have increased risk for depression, anxiety, lack of understanding and compassion for those they are responsible for, and many other physical and mental symptoms.”
Who among us hasn’t wanted to shield ourselves from the struggles of others because we don’t want “excessive negative feelings?” Who among us hasn’t felt burned out at times worrying about other people and the myriad problems they face?
What’s the answer? Perhaps counterintuitively, it’s compassion. It’s not focusing on just worrying about other people and showing empathy, but doing something about it.
“Feelings of compassion are at odds with empathic distress,” Tait said later in her article. “When someone feels compassionate, the feeling is other-focused, positive, and protects against burnout. While affective empathy involves taking on the negative emotions of others, compassion invites feelings of love and warmth toward others, preventing the desire to abandon those who are suffering.”
Those reading this may wonder, “OK, that all sounds great. So how do I become more compassionate? What can I do?”
This is a faith column, so you might know where I’m going to go.
Look to teachings and examples from the scriptures, specifically Jesus Christ.
Luke 10 includes the parable of the good Samaritan.
“And Jesus answering said, A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee. Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbour unto him that fell among the thieves? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.” (Luke 10:30-37)
I love the following words by Thomas S. Monson, former president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in a talk titled “Your Jericho Road” at the April 1977 general conference of the church.
“Each of us, in the journey through mortality, will travel his own Jericho Road. What will be your experience? What will be mine? Will I fail to notice him who has fallen among thieves and requires my help? Will you?
“Will I be one who sees the injured and hears his plea, yet crosses to the other side? Will you?
“Or will I be one who sees, who hears, who pauses and who helps? Will you?
“Jesus provided our watchword, ‘Go, and do thou likewise.’ When we obey that declaration, there opens to our eternal view a vista of joy seldom equaled and never surpassed.
“Now the Jericho Road may not be clearly marked. Neither may the injured cry out, that we may hear. But when we walk in the steps of that good Samaritan, we walk the pathway that leads to perfection.”
Jesus commanded, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Reading that can bring about stress because we think to ourselves, how can we possibly be perfect? We can’t. Not in mortality, at least. But as we demonstrate a willingness to show compassion for others, we take steps toward eventually becoming perfect.
The Book of Mormon prophet Nephi said, “I will go and do the things which the Lord hath commanded, for I know that the Lord giveth no commandments unto the children of men, save he shall prepare a way for them that they may accomplish the thing which he commandeth them.” (1 Nephi 3:7)
Compassion is part of the way prepared for us to obey the commandment to be perfect.
Let us all look harder for ways we can show compassion and then follow through when opportunities present themselves. I believe God knows exactly what we are capable of, and if we desire, he will show us when circumstances occur where we have the capacity to help.
Contact Ryan Comer at email@example.com.