Chapter 11-1: Empathy

Looking back I see how much I empathized with my husband. I recognized my husband was in pain and suffering and part of me felt his pain. He never complained and, on many trips, pointed out that if we were at home, he would still be in pain. He enjoyed the scenery, the forests, mountains and deserts we explored.  I desired to alleviate his suffering. Compassion can be in the simplest things, holding hands, a smile, a gentle touch, a home baked chocolate cake with chocolate icing.

In 2000 I turned forty and to celebrate I wanted to return to the Wind River Mountains which I had studied for my doctoral thesis. But there was no way that Bob could hike into the heart of the mountains and this was tough for me to accept. But my lovely husband enthusiastically encouraged me to take the trip by myself. He took joy in my happiness, and I recognized that I needed to take care of myself or I ran the risk of empathy burnout, becoming overwhelmed by witnessing Bob’s pain and this could stress our marriage. I needed to stay strong.

Cirque of the Towers, Wind River Mountains, Wyoming

The research of neuroscientist Tania Singer and her colleagues has shown that when I experience empathy the pain center of my brain lights up. In other words part of me was experiencing Bob’s pain. This can lead to empathy burnout. But when I lean into compassion, the active component of alleviating my husband’s suffering, a distinctly different area of the brain, associated with affiliation and positive emotion lights up1. However, there were many  times I was overwhelmed by sadness at seeing him in pain and unable to take it away. I had not yet cultivated mindfulness, which teaches us to be present with what is and not resist, which only leads to more suffering.

1.    Klimecki, Olga M., Susanne Leiberg, Matthieu Ricard, and Tania Singer. “Differential Pattern of Functional Brain Plasticity after Compassion and Empathy Training.” Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9, no. 6 (June, 2014): 873-9.