This course was created by Sounds True. We are pleased to offer this training in our library.
Skill Level Beginner
- [Presenter 1] This is an audio course. No need to watch, just listen. Welcome to the latest addition to LinkedIn learning, podcasts. We've curated some of the best business podcasts and made them even easier to listen to. Each episode is split into sections, use the links in the contents area to skip to whichever section you like. We're always looking for new ways to help you learn and we'd appreciate your feedback. Thanks for listening. (guitar music) - [Presenter 2] Sounds True presents "The Science of Compassion", a modern approach for cultivating empathy, love and connection with health psychologist and Stanford University lecturer Kelly McGonigal. Our program continues with session 10. Self-compassion when compassion is difficult. (guitar music) - [Kelly] As you know, I'm passionate about animal welfare and I follow a lot of animal rescue organizations on social media, where they post announcements, they post pictures of dogs or cats who've been adopted, and occasionally animals that might need some special help. And usually I'm uplifted by their posts. But one evening, a couple of months ago an animal rescue organization started posting the names and photos of all the cats and dogs who would be euthanized by a local animal facility if those animals were not rescued in the next 24 hours. And next to every photo they posted they also asked for money to help the organization go and rescue these animals. And as I looked at these photos and as they kept popping up in my stream I began to feel more and more distressed, overwhelmed. I realized I couldn't save that animal, and I couldn't save that animal, and I couldn't save that animal. And I became aware of how many animals were going to die the next day because I couldn't do enough. And the usual warm glow that I get from following these organizations, from donating money to an animal rescue group, or even directly volunteering, all of that fell away. And it was replaced with simply a feeling of despair and dread and utter hopelessness. So what did I do? I just unfollowed the account. What just happened? What was that experience? One way to describe what I experienced is compassion collapse. Psychologist, Paul Slovic, coined this phrase after noticing that as the scale of suffering increases, people's compassion decreases. Our hearts may break when we see one child go hungry but that same heart may go numb when we hear of millions of children starving. And this is not a minor fluke of human psychology, this is a real barrier to compassion that can keep people from doing things that will make a difference. Whether it's to prevent climate change, or work to change injustices, or to save lives. This session will explore why our compassion sometimes collapses under the weight of large scale suffering and what we can do to sustain compassion and make a difference in the world. Let's start with why and how a compassion collapse happens. Researchers who are interested in this question they typically create the conditions for compassion collapse by asking people to donate money to an important cause. Often it's starving children in another country, or children who don't have access to clean water or education. Sometimes it's an area that's been devastated by environmental destruction, wildlife that needs protection, or nature that needs to be preserved. In each case, they manipulate the scale of suffering that they're asking participants to respond to. For example, participants in a study might be given this message, "In the West Darfur region of Sudan there's been a civil war raging for the past five years. This conflict has resulted in unchecked violence against civilians who have been killed, abducted, or driven from their homes. These civilians suffer from malnutrition, unsanitary living conditions and are at risk for deadly diseases such as malaria, dysentery, and cholera." Then, the participant is shown either a photo of one child they can help with the child's name and age included, or they're shown a photo of eight children with all their names and ages included. And then they're asked to donate money. How much money do you think you would donate if you were shown the photo of one child and asked to do what you could to help this one child. And how much would you donate if you saw the photo of eight children who needed your help? What the research shows is that as the number of children in need increases, the amount people donate, decreases and I'm not talking about the amount per child, I mean the total amount. A person might give $10 to help one child, $5 to help two children and $1 to help eight. Psychologists call this compassion fade. If the size of suffering increases to a big enough scale that fade can become total collapse and then people avert their gaze, they mumble, "I'm sorry." and give nothing. Why does compassion fade as the scale of suffering increases? The research highlights two reasons. First, as the scale of suffering increases people expect their efforts to have less benefit. And if they expect they're helping to do less good that means they feel less of a warm glow and more moral distress as they make the donation. Some studies have even tracked people's facial expressions as they think about donating and then make a donation and people smile less when they're donating to a large group, rather than a single individual. It just doesn't feel as good to give when you are very aware that what you can give is not enough. Second, as the suffering that people are asked to respond to gets bigger, they begin to feel more and more empathic distress. And they feel more and more distress about being unable to do enough. And studies show that people unconsciously begin to regulate their emotional response so that they can escape awareness of the suffering and the obligation to do anything. People who have the most empathy and also tend to feel the most empathic distress are actually more likely to experience compassion collapse than people who care less. It's an emotion regulation strategy to protect yourself from that extreme distress. Importantly, it's not a failure to imagine the suffering or connect to the suffering and it's definitely not a sign that someone lacks compassion. Compassion collapse happens not because our capacity for empathy or caring is so limited, but because we can't find a way to get to the part of compassion that involves feeling like we have the resources to do something that matters that's going to make a difference. And if we can't get to that part, the part that anticipates and feels the warm glow of helping the whole process shuts down. And one way people do this is by turning their attention away from the suffering. That's what I did when I unfollowed that animal rescue Facebook account, who was posting images of all the animals who would be killed the next day. And it's what people do when they ignore homeless people on the street. Or as one friend described to me recently, like the medical staff in the hospital he was a patient in, he described lying on a gurney in a busy hallway waiting for over an hour to be wheeled in for an MRI. And as he lay there worrying and uncomfortable, not a single nurse, or doctor, or anyone in scrubs made eye contact with him. He told me, "It was like they were refusing to really see and acknowledge my anxiety and pain because they were busy and I wasn't their patient, and they didn't have the time or emotional resources to deal with it." Of course one of the defining aspects of modern life is that we are confronted all the time with suffering so large that we don't have the resources to relieve it. American novelist and poet Barbara Kingsolver wrote about this dilemma in her 1996 book, "High Tide in Tucson". Confronted with dozens of disasters every day, what can a human heart do but slam its doors? No mortal can grieve that much. We didn't evolve to cope with tragedy on a global scale. Our defense is to pretend there's no thread of event that connects us and that those lives are somehow not precious and real like our own. It's a practical strategy. But the loss of empathy is also the loss of humanity. And that's no small trade-off. Scientific studies confirm that Kingsolver's hunch is right. That when we regulate our compassion downward, when we decide consciously or unconsciously not to care when we think we can't do anything it does indeed strike at our sense of morality. Studies show that people who experienced compassion collapse then feel less committed to their moral principles. They identify less strongly with their values and they're more willing to go against their morals. This is something I worry about personally. I spend a lot of time in two cities with a high homeless population, Palo Alto, California and New York city. And I sense this moral distress and discomfort Whenever I ignore requests for money on the subway or street. First, I feel myself trying to pay less attention, "Don't look at him, don't look at her, put your headphones on." And then I noticed myself trying not to feel as much empathy, to maybe justify not giving or to at least not feel so bad about not giving. "That person's probably on drugs. That person looks mentally ill." And even as this is all playing out I feel a kind of moral hypocrisy that makes me ashamed. I'm someone who studies and teaches compassion and I'm witnessing my compassion collapse. I sense myself go into this kind of denial about my values, or denial of the suffering that I'm seeing, or denial of my duty in the situation. My strategy to deal with this now is to try to counter that compassion collapse by paying more attention to all of it. And by inviting an empathy. I try to acknowledge that my mix of desire to help and the moral distress of not knowing how to truly help, is okay. And I'd rather feel that and try to think about what to do with that distress than just go numb and practice shutting down in the face of suffering. And I also make choices to volunteer with food service at a local church and to send money to support organizations that work with the homeless. And I give myself permission to say, "This is the level of engagement that I can choose right now for this particular kind of suffering. And it's okay if it feels complicated, and it's okay that it feels inadequate." If you would like to explore your own experience of compassion collapse, I invite you to consider is there a suffering so big you find yourself trying to ignore or escape it? And if you notice that, what does it feel like? What would happen if you brought mindful self compassion to that experience? And if you find yourself in such a situation asking yourself what level of engagement are you able and willing to bring to the suffering? What would be the most skillful way for you to help that you can feel good about?