In regards to compassion and empathy, it’s important that we exercise awareness in our determination of what is the most compassionate action we can take with someone we feel empathy toward. We can empathize with someone, and yet determine that the most compassionate action to take with them is to set firm boundaries. Take the example of a parent who is out shopping with their child. The child starts screaming their demands when the parent tells them that the child cannot have the toy that they’ve picked up from a shelf. This parent may empathize with the child’s pain, and even feel quite upset that their child is in such visible distress over not getting something that they want. And yet the most compassionate action this parent can take might be to set firm boundaries and maintain their position around not giving in.
So, how do we keep our empathy from driving all of our reactions? This is a tough question, and one that is profoundly difficult to answer. It is important to remember that empathy can lead us to make biased decisions. It can, at times, cloud our understanding of the whole picture. Empathy can act as a tool for gaining feedback- about our own responses, biases,tendencies and reactions. In terms of taking action,we should consider our core values, and we should exercise good critical thinking. Empathy should not be used as the only tool towards making decisions, and when we feel it, we should exercise rigor in examining, exploring and assessing it.
In no way, does this mean that empathy is “bad.” Empathy can be an extremely powerful tool for cultivating compassion, charity and developing a deeper understanding of the suffering of other people. However, it is important that we consider how these tools can b eused in both helpful and unhelpful manners. Empathy is quite complex.
When we are trying to figure out how to interact with others, we should consult a variety of sources- empathy, critical thinking, core values to name a few. Empathy is a powerful human capacity, and anything of such tremendous power should be treated with care, reflection and observation.