Do We Really Need to Feel More Empathy?

4 min read

Several years ago, Matthieu Ricard, a monk who is an expert meditator, participated in a brain-imaging study led by empathy researcher Tania Singer. After watching a video on the intensely traumatic lives of children in a Romanian orphanage, Ricard empathized with the children for 2 hours while his brain was scanned. Singer then offered to take a break before scanning him during a compassion meditation. He declined to take a break because he was finding the suffering unbearable and wanted to switch to compassion immediately to “soak” that suffering in loving-kindness (Mindful Living Community, 2021).

Illustrating that empathy and compassion are not on a functional continuum, and that so-called compassion fatigue would be more accurately called empathy fatigue, the imaging from this study showed neural pain pathways lighting up in Ricard’s brain when he empathized and reward pathways lighting up when he practiced loving-kindness compassion.

From the Internal Family Systems (IFS) perspective, what can we learn from this study?


When an internal system of parts (or subpersonalities) is dominated by the likes of wall parts (who show up as literal walls and block access to hurt parts as well as information about the past), dissociative parts, compliant parts, angry parts, narcissistic parts, intransigent nonverbal parts, and so on, it pays to remember that they take on these roles in order to banish emotional pain that doesn’t turn off, and they can’t be expected to welcome more pain. Yet to empathize with pain is to feel pain.

Empathy thus poses a Goldilocks dilemma. Therapists can have too much or too little empathy for their clients, clients can have too much or too little empathy for the people in their lives, and our parts can have too much or too little empathy for each other. Too much empathy motivates protective parts to suppress feelings, whereas too little signals that protectors have already shut feelings down. Empathy itself is not the culprit, nor is it a cure-all. We don’t need our parts to have less empathy, and we couldn’t make that happen anyway. To give our parts internal stability, we need, as Singer’s research tells us, a good blueprint for accessing compassion.

The Self

IFS asserts that the psyche consists of a community of parts who have the capacity to experience a range of feelings from very negative to very positive, and a contrasting resource, a wellspring of centered, open-hearted feelings and cognitive states, including compassion, curiosity, courage, and clarity, which IFS calls the Self. Philosophers call this arrangement a unity of opposites: Without light we wouldn’t have (or even need the concept of) darkness because we would only know darkness. Without death we would not have a concept of life, and so on. Pairs of opposites define each other. We can think of parts and the Self as such a pair. The ultimate success of IFS depends on both clients and therapists having good access to both forms of consciousness. When our parts make room for the Self, we feel mentally spacious, compassionate, and able to be curious rather than reactive. We get a bird’s-eye view of ourselves, other people, and events.

When we legitimize our wounded vulnerable parts with love, leading from our Self, we help them let go of their fear and shamefulness and they, in turn, stop overloading the internal system with personal and vicarious pain. With this in mind, I am guided by this simple, user-friendly formula: Psychic parts often feel pain. Sometimes it’s their pain, and sometimes the pain originated with someone else. Either way, when they feel pain, they need help. The Self, which is fully aware of their pain and feels compassion, is there to help. Our ticket to freedom isn’t empathy between parts, inside or out; it’s the Self’s love and compassion for all parts.

Excerpted (and edited for this publication) from my book Internal Family Systems Therapy for Shame and Guilt. Guilford Press. Copyright Martha Sweezy

You May Also Like

More From Author

+ There are no comments

Add yours