The Essence and Power of Empathy

Great compassion is the root of altruistic action. It really is a source of wonder. There is no greater source of help and happiness. The capacity to devote yourself to the welfare of others yields otherwise unobtainable power and potential for good. Generate great compassion and you become a friend of the world and a companion of the warm-hearted. – Dalai Lama

“As empaths, we are not here to be sponges or enablers. We are here to be helpers, guides, and supporters.” ― Aletheia Luna, .

Altruism. Empathy. Building Bridges. Compassion. Love. Giving.

These are terms I have used growing up to counterbalance the negativity in the world. The need to understand a different point of view to build bridges and mitigate prejudiced or hate. The counterbalance of my high school life around violent behavior was these principles. For years I have tried hard to let my ego go and try to truly understand the point of view of another and build compassion. That work manifested in human rights work. Then political. Then in my personal life by giving my heart to my friends and family. To the point of burnout.

I suffered from burn out symptoms of empathy in my mid-twenties but was in denial. Looking back, this is where my drinking became a problem. Drinking became a way to escape the draining energy of emotion I was feeling. I took a step back from my career in politics and advocacy to work on building bridges through digital communication. I became a leader in the digital marketing world building campaigns that invoked thought. I felt it was safer to impact the human condition through mass media. I worked within the music industry putting visual elements behind the lyrics. Here is an example of work I helped with:

At the time, working with Artist for Amnesty, we worked on supplying the stories of prisoners of conscience in hopes to educate and manifest compassion in the audience to take action.

I became inspired by marketing campaigns like this one from Dove:

The power of hope, love, and compassion can be delivered through campaigns.

This became, what I thought was, a more balanced approach to fulfilling the need to live through empathy. I took pride in my compassionate drive. But again, to the point of paralysis. I began to continue to open my pocketbook and soul to many. I felt it was never enough. t wasn’t until 2007 that a Zen master told me that I was a strong intuitive empath: What is an Empath?

Overwhelmed at work? With relationships? WIth strangers? The overwhelming need to add positivity toward the human condition? Yes, that is me. To the point of paralysis. I drank to numb. This was the space I was in.

In 2017 a friend of mine from my later teenage years took his life. I saw him rise into an inspirational leader in the music industry. Chester battled so many demons in his mind yet showcased himself as a friendly, loving, happy soul. He too had a lot of compassion for those around him. But he was hurting inside.

For that reason and his friendship, his death impacted me to the point of getting my own help. I went through treatment and one of the main focal points was to balance the need to empathy and compassion with my own self-health. To understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Coming out of treatment and into a life of recovery I still push hard to develop compassion and empathy in my writings and talks. With empathy and compassion (balanced) we do begin to understand one another on a deeper level and build a stronger human experience. Helen Riess sums up the power of empathy well in this Ted Talk:

I am reminded of this quote:

“Although empathy is crucial for successful social interactions, excessive sharing of others negative emotions may be maladaptive and constitute a source of burnout. … In contrast, subsequent compassion training could reverse the increase in negative effect and, in contrast, augment self-reports of positive affect. … We conclude that training compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome emphatic distress and strengthen resilience.” — Quote from Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training

I came across these tips that have helped me still develop empathy without getting overwhelmed:

Tips to Avoid Empathic Distress

Breathe.

When we see something distressing, it activates the fight/flight response and our breathing becomes fast and shallow, which increases our anxiety and gives our emotions momentum. Research shows that slow, steady deep breathing activates the vagus nerve which comes from the brain and controls the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls the relaxation response.  A few deep breaths will help you feel calmer.

Feel your body.

When you’re witnessing strong emotions in others, intent to stay with yourself rather than getting caught up in their experience. Feel your feet on the ground and wiggle your toes. Bend your knees slightly if you are standing, and feel your butt in the chair supporting you if you’re sitting.  Be aware of body sensations and imagine yourself holding the sensations and emotions as they move through your body. And, of course keep the option open to physically remove yourself situations that become too distressing.

Remember we have a perceptual bias to pay more attention to the negative, potentially threatening information. It’s good to be aware of possible threats and problems.  But without some perspective-taking, it can lead us to believe that the negative outweighs the positive. Be discerning about the amount of time and attention you give to distressing information on a regular basis.

Are empathy and compassion consuming for you? How do you find balance?

Additional reading: “Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World”, Little, Brown and Company (2015)

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