holding hands

I get a fair amount of my self-esteem from helping people. Supplying others with what they need, makes me feel useful. It gives me a ticket to enter certain circles — family, co-worker, friend groups. The trouble with this people-pleasing nature is it drains anyone who primarily channels it through empathy. We take on the other person’s experience and empathize to a fault. The key is to offer compassion versus empathy.

What is the difference between empathy and compassion?

Empathy causes burnout in caregivers because it is a co-experience. Highly sensitive people with their consistently attuned nervous system, often experience the energy or emotions of others.

Empathy allows us to step into another’s shoes. We feel the suffering of our companions. We want to help them because relieving them, relieves us.

Compassion acknowledges similar feelings of common humanity and care, but at a distance. It is not so much of a co-experience.

Compassion resources the other person with tools. It does not rescue them with ourselves. It empowers others, leaving us feeling less drained.

Authoritative parenting and compassion

Compassion reminds me of the authoritative parenting style. Parents with this style of raising children, have high expectations but also give their kids the resources and support they need to succeed on their own. There is a connection and devotion to their children but also a separation. Authoritative parents set expectations and boundaries while supporting their children.

Tough love?

While my mother was still alive, my then husband and I would have annual talks with her about her finances. Inevitably, my mom would break down in tears during these discussions. She felt terrible and like a burden because she had not saved enough to live comfortably during retirement.

My husband usually tried to offer her options for re-investing. He helped her create a budget. I mostly felt sorry for her and focused on comforting her. At the time, I thought he was rather cold. Now, I see the benefit in giving my mom tools to help her versus just my empathy. I empathized with her to a fault. I wanted relief for her and me.

Are you co-experiencing?

The truth is, I could feel my mom’s sadness/depression/fears in my bones. I’ve always had a fear of not having enough money. My mom’s loneliness and unhappiness weighed heavy on my heart for many years, even as a child. I could have used more compassionate distance.

Empathy still needed

I still think empathy is a vital trait much needed in our world. Putting ourselves in other’s shoes allows for perspective. The key is to not get enmeshed to the point of co-experiencing suffering and energy drain.

Look to compassion versus empathy to offer aid to others while maintaining your own strength.


How much emotion and effort are you taking on in empathy? Could you shift to a more compassionate stance?

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash


Space2live/Brendaknowles.com is 10 years old this week!! I started writing on wordpress in 2011. Time flies! Thank you for joining me on this long-time adventure. 

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