Can you care too much?

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care— then do me a favour: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends.
Phil 2:1-4 The Message

Amongst the various challenges the Bible gives us is a theme of caring for one another - looking after those in need and not passing by people who have hit tough times.  Jesus said that the second most important commandment - after loving God - was to love your neighbour as yourself (Mark 12:29-33). But is it possible to love too much?

As Christians it is tempting to want to love without limits - to give ourselves entirely to other people and focus on their needs rather than our own. Ghandi once said that the best way to find yourself was to ‘lose yourself in the service of others.’ But in Jesus we see a model of a human loving and giving perfectly - and we also see limits to that giving. Jesus sometimes moved away from people in need to pray (see Luke 5:16), to sleep (Matthew 8:24) or to find space for his own emotions (Matthew 14:10-13). So where does the balance lie in how we care for people?

One often used word in this area is that of empathy.  Empathy is about more than just understanding what someone is feeling - it involves feeling someone’s pain, and communicating to them that you really understand what they are going through. Empathy seems to be a vital skill in human relationships. The element of being able to understand the world from someone else’s perspective is a crucial part of social interaction.  Understanding why people act and react the way they do is what makes us able to share our space and our lives with them.  Research suggests there is a natural variance in how ‘reactive’ your mirror neurones are - some people are more naturally empathetic than others, and such variation may explain why some people are more naturally drawn to caring roles or situations. Empathy has been demonstrated to be a really important construct in caring professions like medicine, counselling etc - but there is a problem. Too much empathy seems to lead to an increased risk of burnout and compassion fatigue. 

The roots of why this is the case seem to lie in what empathy involves at a brain level.  Empathy is an instinctive ability to place yourself in someone else’s position and understand what they are feeling.  More than that though, empathy involves an element of mirroring those feelings in what you experience yourself - it involves an emotional reaction yourself as you reach out to others.  Research has demonstrated the role of what are called mirror neurons - neurons which are triggered when we see another human experiencing an emotion, and go on to trigger something of the same emotion in us - mirroring what we see them experiencing.  Although there’s still debate amongst experts, the role of mirror neurons suggests that empathy means we experience something of what we would literally feel were we in the other person’s shoes.  We know however that it is their experience, not ours, so that’s what makes it empathy.  

Bearing this in mind, its easy to see why too much empathy can be exhausting. If you constantly experience the emotions of others, then you may naturally be more drawn to try to help them, but also suffer more from the experience of sharing their pain.  Studies looking at empathy within the caring professions clearly link heightened empathy with an increased risk of stress and burnout.  Combine that with the fact that heightened empathy responses are likely in those who already demonstrate a tendency to be more emotional themselves and you can see why a very empathetic person working in a caring field could be at risk of issues linked to stress and negative emotion.    

So how should research like this change the way we care as Christians? What can we learn from the way Jesus lived about how best to love the people around us? What is very interesting is that the bible doesn’t actually talk about empathy. Instead it uses another word which has recently begun to generate a great deal of interest in the research world: compassion.

Compassion is defined in similar terms to empathy as the ability to appreciate the emotions of another.  It’s not a shallow response by any means - the biblical word translated as compassion literally means to be moved ‘from your gut’. However rather than just generating an emotional response (as in empathy), compassion triggers a caring response - behavioural actions and reactions rather than emotional ones. Compassion triggers motivation and action to relieve or alleviate the suffering that has been observed but also offers a protection from the potentially difficult emotional impact of the suffering of others. This means that someone is able to continue caring for others in a way that is effective and valuable to those in need, but also protects them better from potentially negative impacts on their own wellbeing. 

The link between compassion and actions to relieve suffering is clear in the Bible.  Matthew 14:14 describes Jesus coming upon a crowd of people in need:  ‘When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.’  (Matthew 14:14 NIV) Jesus’ compassion is directly and intrinsically linked with his action - he didn’t just feel empathy for them, he was moved to act.  The old testament too shows people moved to act outside the usual reactions of their time because of compassion.  In Exodus 2:6, Pharoah’s daughter, in the midst of a time when the Pharaoh himself had ordered all Jewish baby boys to be killed after they were born, found a basket in the river containing just one of those boys.  The Bible tells us she ‘opened it, and saw the child—a boy, crying!—and she felt compassion for him and said, “This is one of the Hebrews’ children.” (Exodus 2:6 NET).  This compassion is what leads her, in the next verse, to ask the child’s mother to nurse him and take care of him for her.  Compassion does more than stir our emotions - it changes the way we act.  

Compassion is also something that is described as a basic component of the character of God - that character which we reflect.  God is ‘compassionate and gracious’ (Psalm 103:8); He is full of compassion (Psalm 116:5), and it is amongst the ways that God describes Himself (Exodus 22:27).  It’s important to note that God’s compassion is more than ‘just’ a feeling.  It is God’s compassion that moves Him to act - whether that be to hear the cries of His people (as in the Exodus verse), or to show mercy (eg Deuteronomy 13:17).  We learn that it was because of God’s ‘great compassion’ that He did not abandon the Israelites in the wilderness, in spite of their repeated decisions to turn from Him (Nehemiah 9:19) and that it is compassion which enables God to hold back His anger when His people sin - meaning it is intrinsically linked with the concept of grace (eg Exodus 34:6, Psalm 103:8, 86:15).  We too are called to be compassionate in turn (Ephesians 4:32; Philippians 2:1-2; Col 3:12) - and this will not just be an emotional response but will require motivation and real action.  

It looks like our understanding of caring from a clinical or academic approach is starting to catch up with this guidance from the Bible.  Recent projects, seeking to value compassion over other forms of caring like empathy, have begun what is termed ‘compassion training’, seeking to increase skills which trigger a compassionate rather than empathetic response to the suffering of others.  Helen Weng, an expert from the Centre for investigating Minds, University of Wisconsin, Madison, described on BBC radio 4s all in the mind program back in June last year, her research into how to train people to become more compassionate (you can listen to the program here).  Her meditation based training asks people to visualise feelings of compassion, and of wishing that their suffering was relieved, first for someone they love in a difficult situation, then for themselves (feeling and allowing ourselves to be compassionate for ourselves is a surprisingly difficult skill) and finally for someone that they do not get on with (it is much harder to feel compassion for someone we dislike).  

What is particularly interesting about projects lie this looking at the contrast between compassion and empathy is what has been demonstrated to be going on at a brain level.  Whilst both activate parts of the brain accosted with processing and understanding the emotions of others, empathy also primarily activates areas of the brain involved in the personal experience of negative emotion. Compassion in contrast triggers activation in the areas of the brain focusing on care or nurturing behaviours. More than that, in individuals who undergo training in compassion skills, the corresponding empathetic emotional activation of their brains seems to decrease as their compassionate activation increases. These responses demonstrate what could be seen as a more long term manageable response to other people’s pain and trauma.  Compassion allows us to appreciate someone else’s pain, and support them, without becoming too distressed ourselves.  There’s also evidence that practicing compassion can have other positive impacts for people - reducing stress and increasing levels of happiness.

Findings like these from clinical research add to the great advice in the bible to teach some important truths about how best to care for people.  It’s really important as Christians that we realise that what we’re called to isn’t an emotionally exhausting, draining, distressing experience. Good caring needn’t carry an overwhelming emotional impact for ourselves and our families. What we’re called to is something that leads us to desire change - justice, improvements and the alleviation of the suffering of others.  If we move from a purely emotional empathetic position to one of action and compassion, we can allow ourselves and the person/people we are supporting to move forwards.  

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort
2 Cor 1:3 (NIV)

This article also appears at

Kate Middleton, 19/05/2014
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