Bring your life into balance

Empathy works. It always does.

Compassion Without Empathy Can Be Harmful. I Learned First-hand.

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I’m at my friends’ house. They have two kids, Maya and Kiran, and two dogs, Luna and Sol. I wrote about the family earlier in “Stepping Into Poop”.

The dogs are playing in the living room, the kids and I are working on math and essays, the parents are at work.

Everything is peaceful, everything is quiet.

Till we hear one of the dogs whine. Like real whining. The kids and I jump up to find out what’s going on. I feel dismayed by what I see. At least, by what I think I see.

From my vantage point, it looks like Luna is biting the jugular vein of Sol, ready for the kill. I feel terrified, and start slamming Luna on the head… Poor dog, if only I had looked better…

It doesn’t help. The whining gets worse, and one of the dogs bites my left arm, even if only a scratch. I start pulling on Luna’s collar, believing that will force her to let go of the jugular vein, and preventing Sol from being killed…

My goodness, if only I had looked better: the whining gets even worse, and one of the dogs now really bites my arm.

But they do get loose.

However, not by any of my actions.

Maya was the one who saw that Luna’s jaw got stuck under Sol’s collar, and couldn’t get loose. The more Luna (or me) pulled, the more in pain Sol and Luna were. So Maya jerked off Sol’s collar, and resolved the whole tangle.

If we define compassion as the desire to relieve suffering, and empathy as a respectful understanding of what others are experiencing, Maya and I both acted with compassion, only Maya had more empathy.

It made me think of all the other times I have acted with lots of compassion and insufficient understanding. Instead of relieving pain, like I intended, I ended up making things worse.

When we don’t understand what’s going on, we don’t see the causes, the correlations, or the consequences of the suffering. It helps to have empathy skills, when we want to relieve suffering. Without empathy, compassion leads to unskillful actions: well-intended and not effective.

Have you ever acted with compassion and insufficient empathy? Would empathy have helped you to relieve the suffering more effectively? Let me know! I would love to learn from your experience.

Author: Elly van Laar

I am a coach. I specialize in helping mission-driven professionals bring their lives into balance. I have a Master's degree in Political Science, Leiden University, the Netherlands. I'm currently in an ICF-coaching certification program. I love meditation, walking, gardening, biking, and hanging out with family and friends.

3 thoughts on “Compassion Without Empathy Can Be Harmful. I Learned First-hand.

  1. Pingback: Dog bites, flowers, and impermanence | Balance purpose, relationships, and self-care

  2. Great post, Elly! I learn from you every time!

    Like

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