As an empath, I spent many years with terribly permeable social and emotional boundaries. I’d accept your burden with the same effort as I would carry my own.

This was not sustainable, as you can imagine. I eventually became so psychically exhausted that I didn’t have a breakdown as much as I had a break through. 

And it didn’t happen on my therapist’s couch. 

It came from my work guiding emerging and experienced leaders through emotional intelligence development, and then helping their teams with the same. 

My brain busting moment was slow to develop, until it came crashing in:

Empathy and compassion are not the same thing, though we often use these terms loosely and interchangeably.

We can have empathy for someone without caring about them. Conversely, we can care about someone and feel no empathy for them.

Empathy is analytical. Compassion is emotional. 

Empathy is not caring compassionately. In fact, empathy is not a feeling, it is the strategic inventory of our own feelings and experiences to understand another’s. 

Compassion, on the other hand, is a feeling.

This difference between empathy and compassion is exemplified in some of the most effective but reviled leaders in the world, those who are considered to lack empathy, when, in fact, they demonstrate extraordinary empathy. They understand someone’s emotions and how to manipulate them, and they do so without compassion.

Have no fear, however, they are the exception not the rule.  

How to separate your empathy from your compassion without losing yourself

Here’s my secret to decoupling my superpower as an empath from my hardwired default to care.

The next time you find yourself in a hyper-charged emotional situation at work or at home, and find yourself struggling to understand and care for the others’ experience in a productive way – try this personal inventory:

  • What are they feeling?
  • Why are they feeling it?
  • How do I know it?
  • Have I felt the same?
  • What is my responsibility in this situation?
  • How do I show I understand and I care without accepting their burden?

If you can master this technique, you improve your boundaries,  protecting yourself and the other person.

If that isn’t compassionate, I don’t know what is.