Handling the Suffering of Others

Mar 18, 2022 | Leadership, Stress

Sometimes the suffering of others can feel overwhelming.

Right now, there’s a lot of it to go around. Every time you turn on the news, there’s suffering to be witnessed in Ukraine.

At work or at home, you may have a colleague who’s going through a difficult time, a client who is suffering, or an aging parent in need.

When I was a public interest lawyer, I was often affected by my clients’ suffering. This can lead to empathic distress and burnout – it did for me.

Can we avoid that without disconnecting? The short answer is yes.

Let’s start with understanding how the suffering of others shows up in our brains.

Wired to connect

Our brains and nervous systems are wired to connect with others.

In fact, the brain is always trying to understand what others are feeling in order to make predictions and guide our responses.

To do that, we have mirror neurons that help us understand others by creating an inner imitation of the actions of others. So if I see you crying, my mirror neurons for crying light up, and I have the experience of crying (in a milder form). 

Suffering and empathic distress

In addition to mirror neurons, areas of the brain that activate with pain also activate when we observe another person’s pain (e.g. the insula and anterior cingulate cortex). 

But when we specifically focus on how the other’s pain is affecting us, then the amygdala, which integral to our fight-flight response, becomes more active.

As a public interest lawyer, I focused a lot on how the suffering of my clients affected me. So I let their pain cause my pain, and I activated my amygdala.

Over time, this causes empathic distress (sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue). Not surprisingly, empathic distress is common in professionals who help others in need.

Common ways to cope with empathic distress are to withdraw, distance ourselves, or depersonalize those in pain.

But then we close off to the very people who need our help.

There’s another option.

Compassion without burnout

The answer is to not get stuck in feeling the other’s suffering as our own, but to differentiate from it. We recognize it and may even feel it, but we don’t stay there. Instead, we recognize that the suffering is not our suffering.

If we don’t focus on how another’s suffering affects us, it won’t feel like a threat to us which activates the amygdala.

This is where compassion is different from empathy. And it let us be present with another’s pain but not overwhelmed by it.

Also, unlike empathic distress, compassion comes with a desire to do something to alleviate the suffering.

Benefits of compassion

Compassion also increases activity in brain areas involved in the generation of oxytocin which is a “feel-good” hormone related to attachment and bonding. It also increases activity in the brain’s motivation and reward circuitry, so it can motivate us to take action.

Compassion can:

  • enhance positive emotions in difficult situations
  • help us feel more connected
  • motivate us to take action to help 

And if we can connect with the suffering but differentiate from it, without turning away, we build our capacity for emotional regulation.

Bottom line: your compassion is good for you and for those who are suffering.

Compassion for Ukraine

If you have been taking in the news on Ukraine, are you able to choose compassion instead of empathic distress?

Compassionate action – if you are in a position to do so – might be making a donation. Here are some organizations helping in Ukraine, each with a 90+% rating at Charity Navigator:


Photo by Tom Parsons on Unsplash 

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Jennifer is the creator of Pathways to Change, a framework for mindful leadership development that integrates coaching, neuroscience, mindfulness and mind-body principles.

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