This is a great graphic created by Psychologist Robert Shelton, comparing Pity, Sympathy, Empathy and Compassion:
People working in the health care sector (nurses, doctors, counsellors, carers etc) are always told that we should have “empathy”, which was also something I used to think I should always aim to have, to feel the pain and the suffering of my patients and sometimes of their family members. And I’d say, sometimes that becomes so natural in me, that seeing people suffering or talking about their sad past and weeping, tears would start filling my eyes too.
It’s good to understand and feel how others are feeling. Quite often I can help them better, we feel very much in-sync with each other. But sometimes this emotion that I sense interfere with the therapy. And not just that, I get so emotional long after the session has ended.
I realised that what we’d want to aim, is sympathy, or even better, compassion, but, not empathy. When I have compassion, even when I do not feel their suffering, I’m still very eager wanting to help them, to release their pain. This makes me feel better, as I quite often got stuck with “I can’t imagine how it’s like to go through that.” (e.g. a friend, who is the only child of a single mother, lost her mother quite suddenly. I have siblings, even if I lost my parents, it’s still not the same for me, I can’t imagine how it’s like for her. – I can give many examples like this, where I can’t imagine and hence can’t sense their pain. What’s more, even if I could imagine, it might still not be the same as experiencing and feeling it for real).
So now I’m no longer insisting that I should be empathising with all my patients. Of course I still do, somehow naturally, quite often. But if I do not, I have learnt that my job has a lot to do with a heart of compassion, I want less suffering in people, I want them to be able to help themselves and ease their pain. This way, the emotion affects me less, and I can help more people too.