Unfamiliar with the term “empathy burnout”? Allow us to explain: “Empathy burnout comes about when a person is regularly expending much of their energy—emotional, physical, mental—to care for others to the point that they, themselves, feel exhausted,” says Madeline Lucas, LMSW, therapist with mental-health provider Real. “If someone spends all their time filling up other people’s buckets and holding space for their feelings and experience, there’s bound to be a moment when their own bucket comes up empty.”
“Empathy burnout comes about when a person is regularly expending much of their energy—emotional, physical, mental—to care for others to the point that they, themselves, feel exhausted.” —Madeline Lucas, LMSW
Granted, there’s a warm and fuzzy feeling as to why you may be feeling this strain of compassion fatigue right now. Spring 2020 was filled with seismic shockwaves that required society to adapt and support each other. In the very peace-loving Some Good News era of the pandemic, there was call to be excellent to each other, and many answered it…despite the heavy stress each of us were feeling in our own right.
“When I think about the collective experience of enduring a global pandemic, a reckoning with systemic racism, unending wildfires in our forests and cities, and more that this year has brought, [it’s clear] we’ve all been met with waves of empathy and compassion that may not have been asked of or required of us in a different year,” says Lucas. “And when confronted with that, we collectively have responded—we’ve taken new strides to connect with loved ones, support those in need, lend a helping hand, or be a sounding board for folks struggling in these times.”
But come the strain of even more mental stressors like a second wave of COVID-19, reentering lockdown, the holidays, and winter in general, it’s easy to feel personally victimized by this pandemic. And it’s even easier to see hell as other people.
How empathy fatigue happens
Empathy is similar to sympathy, but with a deeper emotional component and sense of understanding. It’s requires having the presence of mind to feel for someone without actually being them. In the beginning of the pandemic, many of us were energized and united with a “we’re all in this together” attitude, so the empathy flowed like wine. Then we started taking stock of just how different everyone’s pandemic situation can look.
The human brain has a predisposition to shy from differences and to relate to things that are more similar. So let’s say, for example, 20 horrific things happened to you, and 20 horrific things happened to your friend. You might overlap on at least 15 specific pandemic-related tragedies, but it is the five absolutely awful things that are uniquely specific to your situation that strangle the remnants of your empathy reserves, leading you into the land of empathy burnout.
Stress also comes into play with empathy burnout. “When we are chronically stressed, the ‘fight or flight’ fear response works overtime, and this leads to an overabundance of both adrenaline and cortisol in the system,” says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD. “Although helpful when faced with an immediate threat, chronically elevated levels of stress hormones leave us physically, emotionally, and mentally drained. Sleep, eating habits, and focus are all negatively affected by the constant stress state. As a result, emotional dysregulation and reactivity are far more common in those who are under constant psychological strain.”
This all contributes to a lowered level of patience for others, rendering your feelings numb, sophomoric, rageful, or even childish. So where is there room for kindness, if not for others, for ourselves?
How to fill the empathy bucket
Wellness encompasses eight different dimensions: physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, vocational/occupational, financial, and environmental. When you feel like one or all of those facets are under attack, you may work to set up boundaries to protect them and your overall well-being. That’s why Lucas encourages adopting moments to rest and recharge, while being mindful of the energy you have to spare to someone else.
“We’re all human, and if we are running with no gas, we are bound to react in ways that may not sit well or feel good in the aftermath,” says Lucas. “By checking in and being honest with our own human capacity, and keeping in mind the very valid reality that we all need breaks to recharge at times, we will be better able to show up for others in a way that is honoring ourselves and preventing future burnout.”
Throughout the day, she recommends trying to do self-check-ins on your needs and seeing where you’re being stretched thin. Ask yourself, “How am I doing? What do I need? Do I need to hit the reset button? Or do I feel like I have the capacity to be there for someone right now?”
“If you notice yourself reacting harshly out of empathy burnout, ask yourself, ‘Have I picked up this person’s emotional backpack when it’s not mine to carry right now?” —Lucas
Whatever needs protecting, give yourself permission to set up the barrier—and stick to it. Lucas points out that resentment can brew when you cross your own boundaries. “If you notice yourself reacting harshly out of empathy burnout, ask yourself, ‘Have I picked up this person’s emotional backpack when it’s not mine to carry right now?” she says. “When we lack emotional boundaries and protect others from their own feelings, we rob them of potential growth they may need to work through on their own. By maintaining clear emotional boundaries, you are with the other person and their emotions, but aren’t feeling them for the other person.”
Dr. Manly also encourages incorporating one simple act of self care into your routine a day to protect yourself from empathy burnout. “This might involve pausing to breathe deeply, meditate quietly for a few minutes, or soak in a warm bubble bath, she says. “As well as pausing to express gratitude—whether for a roof over one’s head or food to eat—put a deposit in your personal empathy ‘bank account.’ When we come from a place of gratitude, it’s easier to kindle the internal fires of joy. And, when our sense of joy burns brightly, it’s far easier to naturally radiate—and share—loving kindness.”
Now, I understand this isn’t a foolproof solution because the ability to recharge isn’t necessarily readily available. It requires time, effort, and even the presence of mind to take care of yourself. If those components aren’t an option, work to be mindful of self-empathy; make coffee, put on an uplifting song, and start another day.
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