In 2014, the Canadian-American professor of psychology at Yale University in New Haven, Paul Bloom, put forward a thesis that attracted a lot of attention (and a lot of attention). Since then, the topic has been taken up again and again in various media and discussed, sometimes controversially. For example, in the articles Listening without empathy: Emotional distancing (18 March 2019) or Empathy blinds us (17 December 2015), to name two far apart in time. Bloom Explores the difference between empathy and compassion and he sees empathy as often unhelpful.

Empathy interests me, controversy - for and against - interests me. From the CSF's point of view, there is a struggle for strategies, most likely without seeing the needs behind them.

So I take this thesis and the controversial discussions arising from it as the starting point for a series of blog posts. My intention is to clarify some aspects of the CSF and its stance, to contribute to clarity in understanding the core of the CSF - not to participate in the controversy.

In this blog the topic:

Sympathy, Empathy,Compassion

English, in this case US American English, like German, in this case Swiss written German, has its own word coinages. Words mean more than the sum of their letters. This meaning also comes from the culture in which the language lives. Likewise, the meaning is influenced by the individual character of each person. This is how I encounter words in the articles mentioned (such as empathy and compassion) - and I am irritated. For me, the words are used for different things and sometimes interchanged.

To gain more clarity, it helps me to go back to the original language. And Bloom does indeed speak of empathy and compassion. I add another English expression: sympathy.

All these three words are not translated 1:1 in German, are hardly translatable 1:1. What do these three words mean to me in American English?

Sympathy: I focus on what has happened to my counterpart. I accept what has happened as my own and stay with my reaction to what has happened. This usually creates pain and suffering in me and sometimes drags me down with it.

Empathy: I focus on what is alive in the other person at the moment, what my counterpart is feeling and which needs are just coming up as (un)fulfilled. This creates a closeness, an intimacy with the other person where it is clear to me that this is the case for my counterpart.

Compassion: The same as Empathy and in addition I go into action to be life-serving and enriching for my counterpart.

Note: In German, Sympathie has a different meaning, Empathie is hardly understood in this way and hardly distinguishes itself from Compassion. It is important for me to go even further.

I can live compassion in different ways: From the attitude that it is my duty as a decent and good citizen and human being to help. If my current state of mind and what would do me good right now is disregarded, the probability increases that the desired usefulness in life will not be achieved - for my counterpart as well as for me. So if I don't take my feelings and needs seriously and include them in my actions, both pay the price. However, if I act in full awareness of my needs and in clarity as to whether and how my contribution can contribute to the well-being of the other person, both will most likely experience more fulfilment.

Sceptical? That may be because it has not yet been experienced. In order to experience this, it does not require the ability to differentiate, the ability to keep "things" apart. It may be that I have empathy for my counterpart and that triggers something in me. It is essential for the ability to empathise and for life-serving compassion (I am deliberately not using a German word here) to distinguish between what I feel inside me and what the other person feels inside me. And when "something" arises in me, do I take the time to care for myself first, so that I can be fully there for my counterpart again?

Seen in this way, empathy as I understand it and try to live it is being fully present with the other person. In reality, I always return to being present with myself so that I can be present with the other person again. In clarity about the fact that I am neither responsible for the pain of the other person nor for "making it go away" (more about this in one of the following blog posts).

We were hardly taught this in school, we usually don't have a developed skill in this behaviour. It can be learned in any case. And what would it be good for? I can remain pain-free in challenging situations, remain powerful and effective. My life is thus increasingly fulfilling and easy.

And I know: the definitions I have made here are my way of encountering and dealing with these different expressions, refinements and subtleties. And I am curious about reactions!