“The subject of compassion has been a significant conversation in events over the years. Reading the chapters on compassion in your last book, ‘In the Midst of Things,’ has given me a deeper appreciation for how complex the subject is. Recently, I’ve been wrestling with understanding the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion. I realize that what I take for “compassion” is likely empathy at best.
“I work as an elementary school teacher (now all online) and am submerged in what you described previously as compassion burnout. I have poured everything I have into my students, personally closing gaps where our public school policies fall short (no support for student or family mental or emotional wellbeing), and I can see a real difference for my students. Perhaps my burnout is from reaching my limit of empathy rather than compassion. My question is: At some point could you talk more about the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion?“
I’m not sure that defining the differences between these three words will help you with the burnout you’ve described. But I see these three as progressive steps toward an effective resolution to an issue that’s causing imbalance or suffering. Sympathy is sensitivity from a distance, such as pity or sorrow for another; empathy is more personal participation, understanding, and sharing of the feelings of another; and compassion is a depth of interest that directly engages in a process of resolution.
(From the book you mention: “I think that a truly compassionate being is not someone who feels a lot and understands another’s suffering but is someone who cares enough to do the homework so as to have something valuable to offer to those who are suffering. Such care includes a deeper, general, encompassing concern for life beyond oneself, from which one has the capacity for something immediately effective.”)
Talking with a couple of old friends about these subjects last week, I was making the point that compassion involves a direct sense of responsibility within a given dynamic – crossing over the lines of sympathy and empathy to get to actual engagement, not just feeling and thinking about and listening to. Compassion often requires a more muscular, protective component that includes compensatory action, as in, “This isn’t right and something should be done about it.”
From what you describe here, it seems that that’s what you’re doing in regard to your students. You’re not sitting back and worrying or just feeling for them; you’ve taken on the project of creating a resolution. Teaching – or any compassionate work – if engaged earnestly, can be overwhelming, exhausting, and thankless, because one has to play a variety of (often anonymous) roles simultaneously: guide, parent, friend, counselor, and luminary.
That said, the problem of compassion fatigue leading to burnout arrives when one has exceeded the norms of personal investment for longer than they are used to. Usually, this is an intensifying emotional fatigue that starts to erode one’s own personal balance: it becomes increasingly hard to find yourself and the usual effective outlets for simple rejuvenation, peace, and relief. And one then begins to experience deepening distress, cynicism, a sense of being lost, or even panic. Once that happens, there’s a real danger of collapse of some kind. So, one has to prioritize carefully, creatively finding their way back to the inspirations, rituals, activities that provide regeneration. Especially those that allow you to empty out and remove yourself from the emotional and mental turmoil, as well as the physical effects. You can’t keep spending money if you’ve got nothing in the bank.
There is a component of true moment-to-moment serene balance within all this. Creating that balance involves being attentive to how much (especially emotional) investment you give while in the actual engagement; that is, “What actually helps here versus all the extra emotions, thoughts, and outward energy that wear me out and probably make no difference?” Usually, just a simple, self-contained presence with clear, steadfast intent is plenty (at least once you’ve crossed over the lines of sympathy and empathy):
Thank you for your appreciative comments and for bringing this subject into the fold here.