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Compassion vs empathy

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The traditional wisdom is that counsellors should use empathy when working with clients. Empathy allows the counsellor to put themselves in the client’s shoes, and feel what the client is going through. While this approach may be useful to help connect with the client on an emotional level, if used too frequently, it can lead to counsellor burnout – at which point they cannot help themselves or their clients.

In his latest book, Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Yale psychology professor Paul Bloom makes a case against empathy, particularly when it comes to moral reasoning. His argument is that empathy can cloud our ability to reason about moral issues (e.g. do you give money to one homeless person, or support a charity that builds homes). By too narrowly focusing our attention on and identifying with only one person, we necessarily ignore others.

For counsellors, this ability to really focus on the client is what makes counselling helpful. But what if there was a better way to connect with clients, while at the same time avoiding the symptoms of empathic distress that can often accompany working in a caring profession like counselling? This is where compassion comes in.

Compassion is essentially caring for the other person, rather than feeling their feelings. It involves understanding what the client is going through (intellectually and emotionally), without taking on the painful feelings the client is experiencing. So for example, if a client is feeling depressed, it may be more helpful to remain in a positive state of compassionate loving kindness (a Buddhist concept), rather than fully experiencing what the client is going through.

Bloom’s book was not intended for counsellors, but from his perspective, it doesn’t make sense for those in helping professions to feel everything their client or patient is feeling. For example, if you went to a physician to get help with anxiety, you wouldn’t want your doctor to mirror your anxiety – you would want someone calm, competent and understanding offering a helping hand.

Simply empathically mirroring another’s anguish may also result in inaction, and leave both parties worse off. According to the neurological research cited by Bloom, empathy can be draining, debilitating, and lead to withdrawal, whereas compassion can be energizing, mobilizing, and lead to positive action. On the face of it, compassionate engagement with difficult client material seems like a more viable long-term option than empathy, especially if counsellors want to avoid burning out.

Of course, the idea that empathy is anything less than the ideal moral good may be a shocking concept (the current trend is towards promoting more empathy, not less), and Bloom’s book has certainly caused some controversy, but it is worth exploring the idea to see if there is a better way of doing counselling. If compassion is an engaging force that allows counsellors to relate to others without taking on their distress, it may be a more appropriate approach to working with clients.

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