Empathy is a gateway to Compassion

mum kayo and meEmpathy is a gateway to compassion. It’s understanding how someone feels, and trying to imagine how that might feel for you — it’s a mode of relating. Compassion takes it further. It’s feeling what that person is feeling, holding it, accepting it, and taking some kind of action.

(quote from BigThink)

I like this article’s explanation of the difference between empathy and compassion – it’s something I’ve been puzzling over for a while. It now makes more sense to me why Nonviolent Communication (NVC) is also called Compassionate Communication.

In NVC, a very important step in the four-step process of communication is Requests. This can be a request to yourself (self-compassion) or a request expressed to another. This can be suggesting something that will meet the other person’s needs (e.g. a strategy to meet their need for support) or asking for something that will meet your own needs.

I’m also starting to understand what boundaries really are. I’ve always been uncomfortable when I’ve been told I need stronger boundaries. It seemed like disconnecting or separating myself from people. Now I’m understanding, boundaries are a key component of compassion.

Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.― Brené Brown, Rising Strong

As I get clearer about my own needs, it gets easier to ask for what I need and to say “no” when I’m not honouring my needs. And it’s so much easier if I can trust that my friends or family will honour their own needs and honestly say “yes” or “no” to my requests.

Honesty is a quality I really admire in my mother. She seems very good at self-connecting before agreeing to social engagements or when I ask her to help me with the kids or something. And because I know her “yes” really means “yes” and I can trust she will say “no” when she doesn’t feel up to doing something for or with me, it is so easy to ask her for support. She knows that my asking her is just one strategy and that she doesn’t have to be the only strategy to meet my needs. So I feel really supported and understood by her because I never want her to do anything for me with a sense of obligation or duty (otherwise I feel guilty and afraid to ask). It also means that I never feel obligated to her and I can be completely honest about what I do and don’t feel like doing.

So, after exploring this more assertive, honest aspect of Compassion, I’m feeling a lot of gratitude for my mother and her honesty and honouring of herself  and me and comfort in knowing that her support of our family (which is a lot and enables me to do my NVC teaching and practice) is offered with unconditional love and generosity. Thank you to my mother, Christina Marigold Houen 🙂

christina on swing

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7 thoughts on “Empathy is a gateway to Compassion

  1. Thank you! I am moved and honoured. And I agree, it’s good to have a clear understanding of the difference between empathy and compassion.
    Sometimes, I think, no other action is needed than the state of feeling with someone; because that closeness is subtly communicated to the person, who feels comforted and understood. So feeling with can be an action in itself?

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  2. Well I’m wondering if “feeling with” is just empathy and taking action is compassion after reading the explanation I posted in my blog but I still feel hazy on the difference between the two. I’m keen to keep researching this. 🙂

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  3. it’s a fine line, isn’t it? Action can be either consciously or sub-consciously decided, and is usually thought of as involving not just thoughts and feelings but muscular effort. Feeling doesn’t need to involve action. But feelings can act on (affect) the self and others, either directly through body language with or without words, or telepathically (which literally means to go far off + to suffer). I think for working purposes the distinction you make is clear.

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  4. How wonderful to meet you this way, Filippa. I appreciate that you’re involved with NVC!! And exploring these concepts to see how they are different and yet related. And I’m happy to see that you wrote this tribute to your mother in regard to the compassion in action she is able to demonstrate with you that comes from a relationship with her own self. She’s a woman I have known for much of my life and feel as you do about her, that in her desire to be honest with herself, she has learned how to check in before making an agreement with someone else. This allows others to feel safe in asking for her support, and also, not rejected when she is unable to say, ‘yes’. This is clearly more than empathy, which, in my humble opinion, feels like it may precede and be a part of a compassionate response. Worth exploring further!

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    1. Hi Aile, I’ve been hearing about you since I was a child – you’ve been such an important person in my mother’s life. Thank you for visiting my blog and saying hi. I think Mum has been my greatest teacher of compassion and such an inspiration. So lovely to hear from you Aile and thank you for your comments. I agree that compassion seems to be more than empathy and I definitely want to do more research!

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      1. So lovely, too, to have this conversation between you, Aile and myself. Aile is very dear to my heart. She came into my life when I was quite isolated, a home mum with a workaholic husband and a small child, in a strange place. She was a breath of fresh air and inspiration and opened me up to spiritual realms and alternative ways of being that my rather sheltered life had not included till then. She’s always been a shining light to me, and still is, from afar. We did meet again when she visited Perth, back in the 90s. I will always feel close to her. And thank you Filippa, with more than words.

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