Charles Figley coined the term Compassion Fatigue in the early 1990’s. However, I believe it really is empathy fatigue. As we use more compassion and move away from empathy, it will provide us protection for our brains. It will be more of service to ourselves and others.  There is a difference between compassion, empathy, and sympathy. Even though many use these terms interchangeably, they are very different.

Empathy Hurts

Though empathy has a place, it can cause distress. What we know now about empathy is, it activates the brain’s pain networks. We really do feel others’ pain. But that can be dysregulating and difficult to maintain. When our pain networks are activated, it will put us in distress and shut us down. With empathy you are feeling others’ pain. And that causes us to over-identify and move inwards if it becomes too overwhelming.

Empathy becomes about us.  When this happens, we can no longer be there for someone else. Our brain’s self-perspective will increase activation of brain areas that are involved in the processing of threat or pain. Chronic pain, whether mental or physical, depletes dopamine levels within brain circuits reducing reward and motivation. This is when the development of empathy distress occurs. When we join the suffering of others through empathy, we will not be able to actually help without shifting into compassion.

Problem With Empathy

Empathy can also be divisive since we tend to empathize with those closest to us. As well as those we have connection to or kinship to. The double-edged sword of empathy is it may connect us to our group but separate us from those viewed as outside our group. It can cause us to over identifying with our own group and have separation from those viewed outside our group. Though with compassion it can open us up. And connect us to others both within our group and outside our group.


The definition of compassion can vary some but there are some basic elements (cognitive, emotional, intentional, and motivational). It needs to start with cognitive awareness of suffering. This seems simple enough but without being mindful and present that awareness will not be there. Then it is an emotional response to that suffering.  It is holding space or witnessing another in their suffering. To quote myself,

“Compassion is being with another person and walking with them without judgment. It is recognizing that we may not completely be able to understand someone else’s experiences. But we can hold space for them. It is being present with someone. It is seeing who they are and believing their story (their truth) and making a connection to another human being.” (blog “Giving Grace)*.

And actively wanting to help or relieve another’s suffering and the motivation to take action.

Compassion is more deliberate and more conscious. Why is compassion a preferred place to be? It is moving us to a place to want to help. It moves from feeling with others to feeling for others. When we are in compassion there is a completely different neural network involved such as caring, attachment and bonding. It activates the oxytocin and dopamine in our brain. Extended use of empathy is exhausting and fatiguing, while compassion will rejuvenate and move us to action. It protects us from the stress responses too.

Moving to and Cultivating Compassion

Compassion can also be taught, developed, and cultivated. We have this wonderful neuroplasticity that allow us to learn and rewire our brains. Compassion is about intention and a more active process.  Cultivating our compassion makes us happier people and more connected human beings. This active intentional process allows us to help others which will be more restorative than draining. Empathy becomes all about us and compassion is about the other person. Cultivating compassion will bring us to well-being. Compassion has three parts which are compassion towards others, self-compassion and receiving compassion from others.

I think when it comes to receiving compassion from others, we will be more receptive if we have a self-compassion practice. Those feelings of compassion from someone else or even through self-compassion, might feel foreign to some.  It can be easier for some to give compassion versus receiving compassion. Next is setting an intention and a desire to have suffering end or finding relief. Finally, it is a motivation to do something. To take action in making the world better. It is also a desire to relieve the suffering and a readiness to act on it.

Self-Compassion, Giving and Receiving

As Jack Kornfield said, “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” Our practice needs to include self-compassion as well as compassion towards others. Self-compassion is about being able to be kind and understanding during times of doubt and difficult times. Acknowledging when we make a mistake and being accountable, but it is also the ability to be reassuring and forgiving. It is not letting the harsh self-critic take over.  Recognizing our emotions without being taken over by them or suppressing them.

Compassion for ourselves or for others requires being mindful and aware. It starts with our cognitive awareness of suffering. Then an emotional response to that suffering, then a desire for the suffering to be relieved and a readiness to act on that. Whether we are seeing suffering in ourselves or others, it is responding to that suffering.  It is acknowledging our common humanity and our shared humanness.

Taking Steps (LKM/Exercises)

There are many ways to improve our compassion levels which can include formal and informal exercises and trainings. The one practice that shows to have a significant impact on our compassion levels is loving kindness meditations (LKM). Practicing LKM is a great place to start to improve compassion levels. You can try doing a shorter version daily if you do not have time for longer practices and do a longer practice as often as you can.

An example of what a LKM might look like is using language such as “May I be happy, may I be safe, may I be healthy and peaceful,” then you broaden it to “may my family/friends be happy, safe, healthy etc.”  and can continue to broaden it until you get to “may all beings be happy, safe, healthy and peaceful”. You can adapt this to look like what you want. There are many choices for these practices. There are some links at the end. This is a great first step in enhancing your compassion skills. It could be something added onto a present practice you already have.

More Exercises

Another practice is working on changing the self-critical voice or negative self-talk in your head which is another exercise to help your compassion levels. It can be a formal journaling practice and/or shifting and reframing that self-critical voice when you notice it. When you notice that self-critical voice, challenge it. This voice is not the all-knowing voice of reason. You should question everything it has to say and do a reality check.

Lastly mindfulness practices will be very helpful here. Mindfulness is really about awareness and taking notice. This can be a sitting practice or an active practice when you are walking or participating in various activities.  This will be very helpful with practicing changing your critical voice. Developing a mindful practice is about taking notice of what you are thinking, what you are feeling, what sensations are in your body, what are you hearing or seeing. This activity is about staying present and aware. When you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to the present. There will be links to different practices you can try at the end. There are several different exercises you can try on your own and some formal trainings listed at the end.

Final Note

On a personal level, compassion is good for our brain. In studies, after participants completed compassion training it showed that the brain was better, it strengthens it. It also builds our connections and it enhances cooperation. It also reduces our stress response. Mindfulness is very important with cultivating compassion practice. The more aware we are on how we are feeling, thinking and reacting the more we will know if we are becoming dysregulated. Compassion is a powerful tool and by embracing compassion practices can help us be more open to ourselves and others. It can empower us to make changes in ourselves and the world.

photo by Ashley Jiang from unsplash.

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About the Author: Karen Gentilman
I’m a license clinical social worker in Idaho. I have my master’s degree in social work which I received in 1992 from California University of Long Beach. I have over 20 years working with individuals with different neurological conditions, chronic illnesses, and different medical conditions, including brain injury, strokes, and spinal cord injuries. I have continued to work in Neuro Rehab. I also do private practice (Illumination Counseling Service).

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