Sympathy, Empathy, and the Shift to Compassion

Bob Ditter
March 2017

Learning about a revolutionary and powerful new understanding of the dynamic of caretaking may change the way you train your staff, talk with parents, and think about yourself.

Peter is walking close to his nine-year-old camper Brandon as they make their way from the cabin after rest hour to the archery field. Brandon has been crying on and off since he woke up this morning, and though Peter has been by his side most of the time, it is beginning to wear on him. Peter is hoping that Brandon can "lose himself" for a few minutes in archery. Peter remembers reading on the "camper confidential" form that Brandon's parents filled out before camp that Brandon had been very excited about learning archery when he signed up for camp last fall. Now his homesickness has eclipsed his excitement for camp, and Peter finds himself struggling to alleviate his young friend's pain.

Peter is like thousands of well-intentioned counselors who truly want to make a difference with the campers they serve. Unfortunately, Peter doesn't know the difference between empathy and compassion. Chances are, neither do his director or members of the head staff, or they would have taught Peter and his fellow counselors about it during orientation.

Empathy: The New Universal Competency

Empathy came more acutely into people's awareness around the time Brené Brown did her highly popular TED Talk on vulnerability (2010). Brown, the noted scholar and author who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, also released an animated short video on empathy that a number of camps have used in their staff training over the past two or three years.

Even business writers jumped on the empathy bandwagon. In his recent book, Humans Are Underrated: What High Achievers Know That Brilliant Machines Never Will, Geoff Colvin claims that, "the number one critical skill that workers of the future will need to be successful is not technical knowledge but empathy" (2015). Colvin bases his statement on the fact that, as wonderful and efficient as machines have become, they cannot truly read human emotion or make people feel that sense of connection that real human beings can. In a business like camp, which is all about human relationships, being able to empathize with nervous parents who are about to entrust their child to your care, or with campers trying to muster their courage to overcome their fears on the zip line or during the play tryout, or understanding the stresses that affect camp staff even before they arrive at camp (see "Staff Anxiety: The New Normal," by Bob Ditter, Camping Magazine, September/October 2016) are all critical to your success.

It has also been argued that empathy will be critical to success in the work world of the future. As Adam Grant points out in his book, Give and Take — Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (2013), the service and team-oriented nature of most businesses today require people to collaborate. Whether in law, medicine, consulting, education, accounting, travel, research, manufacturing, or the trades, according to Grant, working with others is and will continue to be of supreme importance in the workplace (2015). This is true in part because today more than half of American and European companies regularly use teams to get work done. People whom Grant calls "givers" — people who are focused on what it takes to make others successful rather than solely on themselves — are able to thrive on teams where collaboration matters (2015). People who can empathize with others are going to be much more successful as team members than those who can't simply because they will be better equipped to see others' points of view and perspectives.

Empathy matters at camp because of the essential fact that counselors are caretakers of other people's children. Without the ability to put oneself in the shoes of a child, one can't connect with them as deeply or be as credible to them, especially when they are out of their comfort zone — which for some campers, like our friend Brandon in the opening story, is the minute they set foot on camp property.

Sympathy, Empathy, and Compassion

So what are the differences among sympathy, empathy, and compassion, and why does it matter at camp?

Sympathy is defined as feeling sorry for people. Though well intentioned, it can come off as condescending, detached, ceremonial, or shallow rather than authentic and sincere. It is often experienced as impersonal, cordial, or cool. Brown would say that sympathy drives disconnection because the speaker does not feel in sync with the listener (2013). Indeed, a counselor who feels sorry for a camper who is homesick, who feels left out, or who just made a blunder in a sports game doesn't really do that camper any good.

Empathy is defined as feeling with people. Brown calls empathy a "courageous choice" because to relate empathically to another person, like a camper or fellow staff member, you have to locate something in yourself that evokes similar feelings (even if your feelings come from a very different experience). Empathy leads to a sense of connection between a counselor and a camper, which is what can alleviate distress in the other person.

It turns out, however, that a serious shortcoming exists in our capacity to experience empathy with others, which is that too much empathy can lead to something called empathic distress. Empathy is based on a reaction we know as mirroring that is hardwired into us as human beings. When we witness distress in others we often experience that distress ourselves. This is the basis of bystander trauma and bystander joy. When we witness someone being traumatized, we experience the same neurological and physical symptoms of that person. When we witness someone performing an act of kindness, we also experience the neurological and physical reactions to that kindness (Singer, 2016).

As writer Amanda Hess has said, "When we reach out to one another, we're often just feeling ourselves" (2016). You can test out this phenomenon in yourself quite easily. Find a picture on the Internet of a cute baby, puppy, or kitten and you immediately feel a kind of tenderness in yourself that is evoked by that image. Likewise, if you flash an image before yourself of a child in pain or someone about to have a painful experience, you can feel yourself literally wince in anticipation of that pain. This is a universal response called resonance, and it is a fundamental component of our empathic response to others. We tend to mirror or identify with the experiences we are witnessing first hand; which while it certainly connects us to the other person, may actually hamper our ability to give them what they need in that moment.

The challenge is that if caretakers, like camp counselors or camp directors, do not shift from empathy to compassion, they risk experiencing empathic distress, which often leads to burnout, negativity, loss of sleep, and, over time, poor health. Think about your staff about four-fifths of the way through the summer. Empathic distress activates the same neural pain network in caretakers that is being activated in the people those caretakers are serving. Indeed, caretaker burnout is a major concern in most caretaking professions, like counseling, nursing, medicine, geriatric care, and so on (Lown, 2016).

By contrast, compassion is rooted in empathy but then shifts into altruistic caring. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom (2016) calls this a shift to rational compassion — a conscious shift to a caring but somewhat more detached stance based on thinking of what the other person needs from us. In other words, our response can be informed by a less emotional, more thoughtful approach when we shift from empathy to compassion.

When caretakers, such as camp counselors, make the shift from empathy to compassion, they are not only more effective in helping their campers because they are not feeling stressed themselves, but they actually undergo all the neurological and physical benefits that one experiences in moments of joy and gratitude. We actually see an increase in a rare 40-cycle per second (cps) gamma ray in the brain under these circumstances. This 40 cps frequency of gamma ray is experienced in humans only very briefly — about a second at a time — and is associated with the joy of living (Davidson, 2016).

Shifting from Empathy to Compassion

Shifting from empathy to compassion is a conscious choice. It is also a critical ability for all caretakers to cultivate if they not only want to be effective, but also avoid burnout. The truth is that as healthy, intact human beings we are never going to completely eliminate our initial gut reaction to the pain or joy of others. As I have pointed out, this is based on the phenomenon of mirroring, which is hardwired in us as mammals. The trick is to be able to take that initial empathic response and shift into compassion.

HOW TO SHIFT

So how does one do that? It turns out that some medical and nursing programs are training their doctors and nurses to do just that. Here is their formula:

  1. Be aware that there is a distinction between empathy and compassion in the first place.
  2. Acknowledge to yourself what the other person's emotional tone and experience are in the moment.
  3. Identify in yourself what you are experiencing in response to what you are witnessing in the moment.
  4. Affirm to yourself: "He or she is over there. I am over here. I am not having his or her experience. He or she is."
  5. Once you have consciously taken a mental step back to remind yourself of your separateness from what you are witnessing, ask yourself, "What does this person need from me right now?" Take a neutral emotional pose (Lown, 2016).

Making this shift takes practice. It is helpful to create role-plays that simulate real-life experiences that counselors, for example, typically deal with in their campers so those counselors can practice making the shift from empathy to compassion during staff training. Those role-plays might include the camper who is homesick, who feels left out, or who is embarrassed and upset about a mistake or failure at an activity, and so on.

Not making the shift will run the risk of one of three things happening:

  1. The staff member will become overidentified and overinvolved in that child's emotional strife (think of all the staff members over the years who have tried to "rescue" certain campers).
  2. The staff member will become numb and detach not only from that camper, but perhaps from campers in general as a way of protecting him or herself from being engulfed by stressful emotions.
  3. The staff member will become emotionally exhausted and suffer from burnout, which in this case is defined as having lost a sense of effectiveness or purpose.

Understanding the distinction between empathy and compassion is critical for millennial staff, who as a group tend to want to do meaningful work and tend to have been raised to experience a lot of empathy for others. For people with the intention of doing purposeful or meaningful work, learning about and mastering the shift from empathy to compassion is essential (Lown, 2016).

Oxytocin: The Antidote to Stress (Cortisol)

One of the other benefits of being able to shift to compassion is that it is now clear that doing so increases the amount of oxytocin both in the brain and the bloodstream (McGonigal, 2013). Oxytocin is the feelgood hormone that floods our systems when we have that warm feeling of being with our closest friends or when we are performing or witnessing an act of kindness. It is the hormone of joy, gratitude, generosity, and wellbeing. When campers are sitting around a campfire and have that warm glow of closeness, they are all experiencing the effect of oxytocin. When we feel compassion for others rather than empathic distress, it also results in an increase in oxytocin in our systems.

What is striking is that the presence of oxytocin in our systems doesn't just make us feel good in the moment, it actually reverses the negative physical and emotional effects of cortisol, the stress hormone. In fact, we now know that there are special receptors in the heart for oxytocin that capture this hormone, which in turn repairs heart tissue (McGonigal, 2013). For campers, counselors, and others who come to camp having experienced a lot of stress in their lives outside of camp, the closeness and warmth of friendships at camp and the ability to experience compassion for others can have lasting beneficial effects.

Parents Are Most Susceptible to Empathic Distress

The group or class of people probably most prone to experiencing empathic distress is parents. When parents see their own child in pain or distress, they often feel that pain and distress themselves. This is the result again of mirroring and empathic resonance (described earlier), and it is probably evolution's way of making sure that offspring are protected until they can fend for themselves. The problem with parents loving their child too much is that it can hamper their ability to truly assist their children in navigating the challenges of the world. Being able to have some distance or perspective is critical to being able to dispassionately assist your child.

Indeed, camp is all about partnering with parents to help achieve this compassionate separation. Camp is where children face their fears, like the fear of being away from mom and dad, the fear of failure if they try out for a camp sports team, the anguish of feeling left out in a group or cabin, or the stress of the myriad challenges that camp offers children in a safe, caring, and supportive environment.

When I hear parents hesitating about sending their child to camp because they aren't sure if they as parents can bear the separation, I say to them, "How wonderful that you love your child so much that what comes up for you when you think about camp is your concern that you would miss him too much. What pure love you have for your child!" After all, complimenting parents goes much farther than chiding or lecturing them. Once I say this and give them a moment to react, I introduce the notion of compassion — that to truly help our children, we must all be able to take a step back and ask ourselves, "What does my child need from me to flourish and thrive, not just in this moment, but in life overall?" This indeed is the sacred partnership camps have with parents. Our task is to make good on this promise by helping our staff provide an environment that is driven by compassion. 

REFERENCES
Brown, B. (2010). The power of vulnerability. TED Talks. Retrieved from ted.com/talks/brene_brown_ on_vulnerability
Brown, B. (2013). Brené Brown on empathy. RSA Shorts. Retrieved from thersa.org/discover/videos/ rsa-shorts/2013/12/Brene-Brown-on-Empathy
Colvin, G. (2015). Humans are underrated: What high achievers know that brilliant machines never will. New York, NY: Portfolio/Penguin.
Davidson, R.J. (2016, October 28–29). Cultivating compassion and well-being: Perspectives from affective and contemplative neuroscience. From Harvard Medical School Compassion in Practice Conference, Boston, Massachusetts.
Ditter, B. (2016, September). Staff anxiety: The new normal," Camping Magazine. Retrieved from ACAcamps.org/resource-library/staff-anxietynew- normal
Grant, A. (2013). Give and take — why helping others drives our success. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
Hess, A. (2016, December 4). Touching Base. New York Times Magazine.
Lown, B. (2016, October 28–29). Activating compassion: Implementing a framework for compassionate, collaborative healthcare. From Harvard Medical School Compassion in Practice Conference, Boston, MA.
McGonigal, K. (2013, September). How to make stress your friend. TED Talks. Retrieved from ted.com/ talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_ your_friend
Singer, T. (2016, October 28–29). Plasticity of the social brain: Training the mind and heart to a caring society. From Harvard Medical School Compassion in Practice Conference, Boston, MA.

Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. 

Photo courtesy of Brooks School Day Camp, North Andover, Massachusetts.