Mindfulness teaches us to be aware of and responsive to the emotions of others. But when we face the suffering of others without equanimity, our empathetic response can overwhelm us. “I think it’s almost inevitable that we get burnt out, at least from time to time,” says meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg. Part of the reason that happens is that we respond to the suffering of others without recognizing the difference between empathy and compassion.
You can acknowledge the pain, you can want to help, but you have to recognize that you can’t change other people’s experience of the world.
When we sense the suffering of others, that’s empathy. But our response might be to forget about it, or feel like we can’t bear it, or we might start blaming. Having compassion is a choice we make consciously and it can only happen with the balance of equanimity. In this conversation between Sharon and Dan Harris, of 10% Happier, they talk about the difference between empathy and compassion, and explore a few ways to avoid burning out.
How to Care Deeply Without Burning Out
- Know the difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy is our natural resonance with the emotions of others, where we sense the difficulty someone might be feeling. Compassion is one of the many responses to empathy.
- Realize when you’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s inevitable that we will all experience burnout. What’s important is recognizing what’s happening and moving towards balance. Compassion implies a stability of attention and caring in a wise and balanced way—caring about yourself and others.
- Recognize that you can’t change others. Compassion also implies a wisdom and intelligence to know that it’s not up to you to fix the world for others. You can’t function if you’re just taking in other’s pain all the time. There’s a balance that’s crucial: You can acknowledge the pain, you can want to help, but you have to recognize that you can’t change other people’s experience of the world. That’s the letting go. Dan Harris puts it this way: “My father says the hardest thing about having kids is letting them make their own mistakes. That’s compassion with equanimity.”
Dive in deeper with Sharon and Dan in Episode #81: Sharon Salzberg, ‘Real Love’ on the 10% Happier podcast.