Science has a way of telling us what we already know intuitively and from our personal experiences, but you have to admire this methodology: a neuroscientist had put a Buddhist monk in a fMRI machine!
You can read the article in New Scientist here.
Even without being subjected to the monk’s ordeal of being placed in the hellish fMRI machine, I can tell you, yes, other people’s toxicity can make you sick especially when you care too much. It certainly made me very ill in the past. Makes sense, right? If not, think about this: if a smiley baby is put in a room full of crying babies, it will start crying soon. From a scientific perspective, this is part of our evolutionary biology. In humans, being affected by another’s emotional state was the earliest step in our evolution as a collaborative species (according to primatologist Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia).
My nasty personal experience of this has left me in a quandary: I want to care deeply again. But no way to I want to risk my own health this time. Negative and positive emotions do spread like a virulent virus. Yes, we can catch it.
Hence the value of this research from many different and reputable institutions. Collectively, it tells us how we can care without crumbling. The key point is the researchers asking subjects to show compassion rather than feel empathy. The results published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience (vol 9, p 873) reported that subjects felt an increase in their sense of wellbeing when they switched from empathy to compassion. Interesting, because the world had been shouting that we need more empathy!
Recently, Tania Singer (the neurologist who put the monk in an fMRI machine) and her team completed the first major project that turned this research into practice. Her group recruited 300 people, some whose jobs put them at higher risk of empathy burnout, and trained them in alternatives to empathy, including compassion.
“It’s not at all clear the world needs more empathy if that means experiencing another person’s suffering as your own. Doing that may simply double the world’s suffering”.
So we don’t have to disengage to protect ourselves. The practice that worked: compassion meditation known as loving kindness meditation, in which you are encouraged to gradually extend warmth and care out from yourself to others.