Relieving the pressure to keep on smiling  


Positive Psychology Coach and RB Mind Trustee, Monika Waller, on how understanding the difference between empathy and compassion can be the first step towards being there for our friends. 


It’s a fact: friendships are essential for both our mental and physical health. What’s the art of connection in a friendship about? Great listening skills. Trust and honesty. Support and understanding. Compassion and kindness. And most likely a combination of all these qualities. In summer when social distancing ended, our friends were often the first people we rushed to meet face-to-face. But maybe recently our friendships have been put to the test.  

What if we can see the sparkle has gone out and our friend struggles in some way? Will we try to fix these low moods by urging him to pull himself together? Will we switch on the pressure on her to ‘be OK’? The first conversation about someone’s mental health takes courage and compassion. We can’t foresee the outcome but at least we can try to prepare by using these three steps: 

  • Intention
  • Attention
  • Attitude



We set an intention to be there for our friend. It’s important to send a message in any way we can to assure our friend that we care and we’ll listen. With pure intentions we commit to refrain from judging and moralising. No fixed agendas, no pressure. Intention is the compass of our heart. 



We will try our best to pay attention and stay focused on the conversation with our friend. It will perhaps be tempting to drift into solution mode and start imagining a happy ending in our head. No, this isn’t one of those goal-orientated activities. We simply wish to offer support because this person is feeling down and going through tough times.  



Attitude will be equally important in the process. It’s how we are going to respond to the whole conversation. When someone opens up about their mental health, they are so vulnerable. Our kind gentle words will make this friend more comfortable talking about such sensitive issues. Expressing some level of our understanding and acceptance will help as well.  



A friendly and deep conversation

The first friendly chat about mental wellbeing may be long or not long at all. Let’s try to keep our expectations at bay and just go with the peaceful flow of intention, attention and attitude. During the conversation we may discover different emotions coming and going. Sometimes we get slightly overwhelmed just by listening. That feeling is empathy. We become aware of the other person’s suffering and our brain reacts to that pain and sadness. It’s natural and we are doing nothing wrong. This is a friendly yet deep conversation on an important topic and our distress may surface from time to time. 

Dr Tania Singer is a social neuroscientist and a psychologist and the world’s expert on empathy and compassion. She has been studying the difference between empathy and compassion for over 20 years. This is how she defines both emotions: 

  • Empathy: in general, the ability to share feelings with others; human beings experience negative feelings when others around them are hurt or worried.
  • Compassion: a reaction to another person’s suffering but this reaction produces feelings of concern and warmth as well as generates the motivation to help the sufferer. 

Empathy can be ‘painful’. Compassion isn’t painful. Feeling empathy, we go inward and for example get upset ourselves when someone is crying. Feeling compassion, we go outward and try to impact the world around us in positive ways, for example we offer to hug someone when they are crying. Empathetic friends put themselves in the shoes of the other person. Compassionate friends feel they can’t stand by and do nothing. Both empathy and compassion are important as they help foster meaningful connections between people.  


Staying connected in good and bad times

Becoming a compassionate mate takes practice. Just understanding the difference between empathy and compassion is the first step in the right direction. These friendly conversations about mental health are not necessarily meant to bring instantaneous relief and solve a problem. Their purpose is to take off the pressure to keep on smiling no matter what. We don’t want to treat our friends differently because they go through a period of depression or anxiety.  

Preparing to, and having, a conversation about mental wellbeing will help us tackle the mental health stigma. True friends will always seize an opportunity to stay connected in good times and bad times. Compassionate friends will go even further and will offer support. The acts of compassion will vary and may start with an invitation to a leisurely walk and then progress to a few words of encouragement to dial a confidential helpline and seek mental health support. 


If you would like to speak to someone in confidence about a mental health problem, RB Mind runs our own helpline.  

Call us now on 020 3137 9590
Monday – Friday: 11am to 8:30pm 
Saturday – Sunday: 2 to 5pm