Cultivating Empathy and Compassion
Dr. Ekman describes the steps towards feeling empathy and acting compassionately, as well as the different forms of compassion.
The first step toward being empathetic and acting compassionately is to recognize how someone is feeling and, in particular, when they are suffering. This is often the simplest and easiest step of the process. For the most part, people are pretty skilled at recognizing how others are feeling when others clearly express emotional information through their words, facial expressions, and other nonverbal communication. However, it can be harder when someone masks or conceals their emotions. Emotional information may still be leaked, however, in the form of a micro expression. It can also be harder for some people to recognize the emotions of others, particularly if they are on the autism spectrum. Dr. Ekman’s online micro expression training tools are geared towards teaching you to quickly and accurately detect the macro, micro and subtle expressions of others in real time.
Knowing how someone feels is the first step towards acting compassionately as we can not relieve the suffering of others if we don’t know they are suffering in the first place. On the other hand, recognizing the emotions and suffering of others does not guarantee we will respond compassionately, as it is possible to know how someone is feeling but not be concerned or interested in their wellbeing.
The next step after recognizing emotion is experiencing emotional resonance. I distinguish two types of emotional resonance: identical resonance and reactive resonance.
- Identical resonance is when you realize someone is in pain and you feel that same suffering. You actually physically experience a version of the other person’s pain.
- Reactive resonance is when you realize someone is suffering and you have an emotional response (care and concern) to their suffering, but you don’t actually feel their pain.
With some exceptions, most people usually resonate with others on some level. Most people love to be in the company of highly emotional resonant people, as it can help them feel seen and heard. On the other hand, highly resonant and empathetic people need to be careful about preventing burnout by maintaining healthy boundaries and finding ways to care for themselves and stay resourced.
Feeling emotional resonance is an important part of maintaining relationships with the people we love and for growing the roots to all forms of compassion.
Types of Compassion: Familial, Global, Sentient and Heroic
I distinguish different types of compassion based on who our compassion is aimed at and how we act in response.
- Familial compassion is the most common form of compassion. It is compassion we have for a family member who is suffering. Like the emotions, it is universal to the species and it can even be observed in other species. I believe familial compassion is the seed that can grow to extend to other people, and even all beings.
- Global compassion is a concern to alleviate the suffering of anyone, regardless of their nationality, language, culture, or religion. Global compassion is when compassion is felt toward all human beings, and it is a central concern in someone’s life.
- Sentient being compassion is compassion towards all living beings (not just humans). This type of compassion is sometimes aligned with certain religions and philosophies.
- Heroic compassion is when someone takes action to protect the wellbeing of others despite the consequences and risks of doing so (in extreme instances, potential death). To be considered heroic compassion, this action is taken with no expectation of reward or recognition, but rather as a form of extreme altruism.