Life is challenging; there’s suffering all around us, and it will catch up with us too, sooner or later. So how do we deal with that, for us and for others? Is empathy enough, and if not, what more is needed?

When we see others suffering, most of us experience some level of sympathy. This is automatic, partly due to ‘mirror neurons’ in the frontal cortex. They fire up when we watch others experiencing events such as pain and give some level of understanding of the experience of the other person.

The amygdala (shrunken in psychopaths) is also critical in recognising suffering and forming a response; so there’s some debate in the psychology world about this.

But no matter just how it happens, most well adjusted people get some level of insight into other people’s suffering, quite automatically. So if we practice empathy and build this capacity in the brain, will we become more empathetic? Probably. Will this necessarily be a good thing? No.

Why? – because it’s easy to get so worked up about other people’s suffering that we can get overloaded, then crash into despair, guilt, feel helpless, and then reach compassion fatigue. How many times have we heard someone say how awful something is, like a famine, and see them get upset, but actually do nothing?

So empathy is part of the path of being an effective goody-goody, but not enough, and may even be counter-productive. The more complete path is compassion, which is an active, appropriate response to suffering.

Dr. Kelly McGonigal of Stanford University has identified 6 critical stages to developing compassion:

  1. Awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. Feeling of concern for and connection to those suffering
  3. Desire to relieve the suffering
  4. Belief you can make a difference
  5. Willingness to take action
  6. Sense of satisfaction as a result

Mindfulness has been shown to augment our feelings of empathy, more universally (not just for people like us), while also helping us step back, get perspective, keep a cool head, and figure out what we can really do to help. It also helps us take a more selfless approach, so that we’re less constrained by self-judgement about our capacity to help, our fear of the situation, our guilt etc.

If we are able to take some kind of real action, and make even a small change, we get the feedback loop of a good feeling about what we’ve done, that will reinforce the likelihood of future compassionate behaviour. Being saintly takes practice!

Dr McGonigal also reflects on self-compassion – why is it that we might have bags of compassion for others but fail to see our own suffering or get an insight into what we can do for ourselves? She says this is partly because we lose ‘social cognition’ or perspective, and miss the wider view. We can be in denial or feel undeserving of help. One way to address that is to write a letter to ourselves “ Hi Simon, I can see that you…” and as a result identify one small kind thing to do for yourself that will make a difference.

It’s also useful to realise that if we’re in a good mental state, we can be of more use to others. So self-compassion and self-care is not self indulgent.

I may be useful to rehearse the six stages of building compassion, in your mindfulness meditation, by bringing to mind a real person you know and imagining how you could help them and how you would feel as a result, may be a way to build this capacity and confidence to take useful action. I have created a 3 minute guided meditation mp3 that you’re welcome to use (I suggest every day for a week).