Sandra came into my office and sank into a chair. She looked tired and couldn’t even find the energy to talk for a few moments. After she began telling me what was going on, I realized that Sandra, like so many of my patients, was experiencing empathy fatigue.
Her oldest child was having a difficult time in his marriage. Her husband was in a crisis at work. Several of the people in the support group she attended for people with RA were seriously ill and needed physical help. Sandra is a deeply feeling person, and easily identifies with others’ pain and distress. She can absorb and carry that pain, often without realizing it.
Many of the people in my practice have a profound empathetic connection with other living beings. I don’t know if it comes with living with chronic pain and illness, but there seems to be a pattern of identifying with and even absorbing others’ suffering, to the point of personal exhaustion.
Maybe you experience this? Stories from friends and family – and even from the news can create a burden of caring and carrying the suffering of others.
That’s how empathy is defined – feeling another person’s feelings, and imagining what it would be like to be the other person going through that.
We prize empathy – and it is a central way to connect with others, but it has a downside. We can overuse it, and it can overwhelm us. We begin to be controlled by our empathy rather than using it as a way to connect with people we care about.
When our powerful imaginations imagine what it is to be that other person, and particularly when we do it over and over again, our brain gets frazzled, and our nervous system goes on overdrive.
So how do we get ourselves into a better place? It is tempting to shut off or shut down – and sometimes our bodies do that for us. But that is a short term and not very effective solution. Letting ourselves become sick from carrying so much feeling only adds to the harm and doesn’t really help.
One of my teachers, Daniel Siegel MD, talks about not having empathy alone. He advises linking our empathy to compassion.
He describes compassion as action oriented. When we feel compassion we are motivated to do something. Compassion gets us into action – making a dish for someone who is sick, driving our friend to the doctor, problem solving the next step for someone who is in a difficult relationship.
Empathy is essential for us to feel connected with others, and it can strengthen even our immune response. But too much empathy without action leaves us overwhelmed and fatigued.
The next time you begin to feel the weight of care, tap into a sense of compassionate action. When you combine these impulses to connect and give help, you feel better and less burned out.