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Why helping Others makes You feel better too: Empathy, Compassion, and Palestine


Being a human means you have a magnificent capacity: empathy. For highly sensitive people, it’s even one of our superpowers. However, empathy comes with a challenge. It can become overwhelming to experience it, causing stress, burnout, and withdrawal. Especially in situations where the one we empathize with goes through extreme distress for long periods of time, experiencing their emotions as our own can be a challenging ordeal. Standing with the people of Palestine in their immense struggle for equality and freedom is such a situation. This is where compassion can make the difference...


Empathy


Empathy, or the ability to live another’s experience as our own, is an important part of what makes us human. Helping you to experience what the lives of others might be like through their unique lens, heart, and mind, it acts like a medicine connecting us all. In a world that feels divided in many ways, practicing empathy gives you the power to sense how we can find one another, build bridges, be inclusive, considerate, and help others feel seen and known.


Compassion

While offering a route for deep connection, empathy has also its limitations. Although you mirror the emotional state of another and share this experience with them, it doesn’t include initiative for moving towards change or a desired outcome. Because of this, approaching a person’s suffering purely from an energy of empathy is not a feasible or effective long-term solution. Carrying their burden alongside them will leave you increasingly exhausted and burned-out. This will result in the inevitable reality that you become less able to continue to give to your teammate. Here, compassion can come in to help you transform feeling another one’s pain into offering constructive action.


Compassion


The term compassion can be described as acting from a sense of empathy and care to relieve another person’s suffering. As you can see, compassion also starts with empathy, but then emphasizes taking action. Developing a path of active support for somebody begins with having a good sense of their experience and being able to relate to their emotions. However, after this, compassion goes the extra mile by actively supporting the other person to get to a place where their situation is better.


Empathy vs Compassion


While empathy and compassion are closely linked, they are not the same. Let’s look closer at some important differences between the two, and how these affect you.


Internal vs external focus


When you experience empathy, your focus primarily points inwards. Your attention goes towards how the other’s experience feels inside of you, how this affects you, and how you can understand it. Compassion on the other hand focuses outwards: you want to take action to relieve the other’s pain. These two approaches require different things from you and trigger different internal processes. Research in neuroscience even indicates that separate areas of your brain light up when you’re solely experiencing empathy versus actively performing a caregiving activity.


Passive vs active


While empathy can bring a sense of connection, understanding, and meaning, it does not actively seek to take action to change somebody’s situation. You are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with another person in their experience, without trying to change their situation. Compassion, on the other hand, is more constructive. You make an active choice to turn emotion into action that seeks change and positive outcomes.


Automatic vs deliberate


If you want to experience compassion, you must make the choice to do so. You have to decide for yourself that you want to take action to support somebody. After this, you consciously have to deliberate, plan, act, reflect, and improve on the decisions that you make. Empathy on the other hand, is considered to be an automatic or reflexive emotional response. Your empathetic feelings are mostly generated on an unconscious level, meaning you are less intentional about your state.


Depletion vs regeneration


Although experiencing empathy can initially be a positive experience, as time progresses, it can increasingly make you feel stuck. Being part of somebody’s suffering while not taking action to improve the situation can devolve into rumination on the problem and increased overwhelm, depression, and depletion. Being immersed in negative emotions and inhabiting someone’s suffering can take a toll on your mental and emotional well-being, especially if it is long-term and with no clear end in sight. 

As we have seen, compassion is deliberate and active. It is intentional and focused on finding solutions. While you might feel powerless being subjected to suffering in a state of empathy, you don’t experience a loss of stability or self-awareness with compassion. Focusing on solutions can help you to maintain a calmer and more mindful state, and provide you with a sense of purpose, empowerment, and control. It can even give you renewed energy and hope. Being able to help just feels good to most of us, and gives you an incentive to do it again in the future.


Empathy in the World of Social Justice - Palestine


Being active in the field of social justice inherently exposes you to the suffering of others - the suffering you are working so hard to stop. Empathy is a central driving force for wishing to see change for others. Wanting to transform patterns of injustice or inequality in society usually means long-term involvement with and care for the ones fighting for change. If we’re not careful, this can come with a cost.


In navigating my own activism for Palestine, I have run into my own limitations more than once. I also learned some valuable lessons. In my activism I ended up befriending several people on the ground in Gaza from afar. I hadn’t planned to be closely involved in the realities of people experiencing constant bombing, loss of family members, famine, and more. Nor was I trained to support others in such an extreme situation. Yet here I was. Holding space for these people whom became my friends and were directly experiencing genocide has been a true honor. At the same time it has been one of the most emotionally and spiritually challenging things I have done in my life.


Compassion

Being physically far away from a person experiencing the suffering, makes taking concrete action to help improve their well-being challenging. Throughout the months, there were periods where much of my support consisted of living through the experiences they endured alongside them. Conversations in the middle of the night while bombs were falling, filled with fear and despair. Holding space for the experience of loss of loved ones, lack of food, hopelessness, exhaustion. While the effect this had on me is obviously nothing compared to having to live through the actual experience, it was affecting me strongly nonetheless. My sleep suffered, my ability to focus diminished greatly as well as my enjoyment of aspects of life here away from the genocide. I was confronted with the lesson I described here in this article: on this path where much of my energy went towards empathy with unimaginable suffering, my mental and emotional health were slipping, and I was increasingly feeling depleted. Something had to change.


From Empathy to Compassion


In the last seven months of the ongoing siege on Gaza, there were different moments where I had taken concrete actions to support my Palestinian friends. I had gathered some funds for local families to buy food. I had donated E-sims to help connect friends to the internet. I had researched future options for a life abroad for someone. I had co-organized a fundraiser for a friend to buy life-saving supplies. I realized that in moments like these, instead of depletion, I experienced a sense of purpose, hope, and renewed energy, and also felt empowered instead of helpless. The contrast these experiences offered me was remarkable. Be it in a very small way, in these moments I was actually able to help change the situation, and as it turned out that made all the difference - for me. While witnessing the suffering of others still impacted me, when operating from an energy of compassion, this suffering became a driver for change instead of an experience leading to overwhelm. What a valuable lesson offered by life, and widely applicable.


There is much going on in our world, and especially for those of us with sensitive souls, it is a lot to take in. Whether the cause your heart is moved by is Palestine, climate change, animal rights, protection of old growth forests or something else, being exposed to the many crises currently going on in the world can easily leave us feeling hopeless, overwhelmed, or burned-out. Feeling the challenging experiences of another as our own (whether those of our human or more-than-human family) connects us with all other life. However, it will become a heavy burden if all we do is witnessing. This is where the medicine of compassion comes in. Not only does compassion offer the one suffering concrete action towards a better situation, it just might make you feel a whole lot better too.


Compassion

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