By John Schorling
I’ve been talking to medical students this week about empathy and compassion before they begin their clinical rotations. One of the points I’ve made is that humans’ brains are wired so that helping others who are experiencing difficulty activates areas associated with feeling positive emotions. This contributes to why practicing compassion, being aware of another person’s suffering and having the desire to alleviate it, is protective of burnout for those in the helping professions.
Another important point is understanding the difference between empathy and empathic awareness. Empathy, feeling what another person is feeling, arises spontaneously as a result of similar areas of the brain being stimulated whether we are experiencing an emotion ourselves or witnessing someone else who is experiencing it. Empathic awareness, being aware of the feelings we are experiencing in the presence of another, is different than empathy.
This distinction is similar to the one between being caught up in thoughts and being aware of thinking. This shift, from feeling an emotion to being aware of feeling it, can allow us to move from feeling sad if we’re with someone who is down to noticing we’re feeling sad. Also important is recognizing that our sadness is arising because we’re with someone who is feeling this way. If we aren’t aware of this, we may focus on ourselves and react in a way that we hope will make us feel better, like withdrawing from the situation. If we are paying attention and recognize both how we are feeling and that it is at least in part because of empathy, then it is natural to want to move toward the other person and help them.
The acronym STOP can be helpful in remembering to practice mindfulness in the moment in general, and it can apply to practicing compassion as well. The S stands for Stop, pausing for a moment to gather our attention. The T is for Taking a breath, to center ourselves. The O stands for Observing our experience, noticing what we are feeling, and being aware of how what we are feeling might relate to what those we are with are experiencing. In doing this, we can move from empathy to empathic awareness. Finally, the P stands for Proceeding with awareness, deciding what the most skillful thing we might do in this situation is, and Practicing compassion, putting this awareness into action.
The holiday season often provides ample opportunities to practice this. It is a time when we may be thinking a lot about giving to others, both with presents and with presence. There may be many opportunities to bring awareness to how we are feeling in relationship to others, and to perhaps work with cultivating empathic awareness, with the intention of fostering compassion and compassionate action.
May kindness and compassion light all of our lives this holiday season.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings