The Dark Side of Empathy: When Too Much Turns Into None
“I had never been told that empathy is a finite resource. You can run out. As a normal, psychological response, you cannot give of yourself again and again and again without replenishing.” – Emmett Fitzgerald
We need to have a talk about empathy. People who work in helping professions tend to have big hearts. We’re a naturally sensitive and empathetic bunch. Our ability to feel what another being is feeling is part of what drew us to the work we do.
It makes us great at our jobs, but empathetic engagement is also what contributes to compassion fatigue. In a nutshell:
Excessive empathy can lead to a lack of empathy.
Too much can turn into not enough.
Kristin Neff, PhD helps explain why: “Empathy can be defined as emotional resonance — feeling what others are feeling. Our brains actually have specialized mirror neurons designed for this purpose. Mirror neurons evolved to help us quickly know if someone is friend or foe by registering their feelings such as anger or friendliness in our own bodies…The problem for caregivers is that when we’re in the presence of suffering, we feel it in our own bodies.”
With our mirror neurons firing all day long – feeling and absorbing the stress, fear, and sadness of the animals and people around us – we can start to feel flooded and overwhelmed.
Our own stress response may be chronically activated by feelings of empathetic distress. It may feel as if we’re soaking in suffering.
Here’s the thing: the emotions of others are contagious. If our empathetic “immune system” isn’t robust, then the boundaries between ourselves and those we serve may become very blurry. And at some point, we may not be able to feel the difference between what someone else is experiencing and what is happening in our own bodies. We feel it all.
Where do we end and where does the other being begin?
This boundary can be especially hard to find for those of us that work with populations who are defenseless: children, animals, the environment.
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes in Trauma Stewardship, “When we speak for animals or creatures or environments that are unable to speak for themselves, we may gradually lose the ability to distinguish their voices from our own. If we don’t pay careful attention, our feelings of identification and responsibility may increase to the point that we experience their anguish in a debilitating way. In the long run, this can diminish our ability to be effective advocates.”
If we are excessively empathetic, it’ll feel like out system is being totally overwhelmed by what’s happening around us.
There were many days at the animal shelter where I felt like a walking open wound.
To protect ourselves, many of us start pushing our feelings away, shutting down, and numbing out. It feels like the only way to survive.
Gradually we may discover we’ve lost the ability to empathize with others (both at work and in our personal lives). This lack of empathy is actually a very common symptom of compassion fatigue in experienced caregivers. Compassion/empathy fatigue is a way to cope.
As we hit the limits of our empathy, without finding a way to recharge and care for ourselves, we become desensitized. We minimize the pain and suffering of others. We stop listening and change the subject. We tune out. We become indifferent. We disconnect.
Instead of feeling everything, we no longer feel much of anything.
“It’s as if you’re a sponge that is completely saturated and has never been wrung out. You can only take so much.” – from Trauma Stewardship
If you’re new to the work, it may seem like lacking empathy could never happen to you. I get it.
Years ago at the shelter, I was assisting in the euthanasia of a dog that I was very attached to. To say that I had excessive empathy for this particular dog would be an understatement. I was weeping during the euthanasia. This stressed out the dog and we needed to call in a third person, so I could step aside from restraining him. The woman who came into assist had been on the job for many, many years.
Embarrassed, I apologized to her for crying. She took one look at my face, slick with tears, and said, “I wish I could still feel that way. I can’t remember the last time I cried.”
Today I recognize that her numbness was a normal and predictable sign of compassion fatigue. She had once cared very, very much. But back then I was shocked. I honestly had no idea what she meant. I was overwhelmed by emotions.
I wanted to feel less. She wanted to feel more.
We were both struggling to find a healthy middle ground where we could engage empathetically, but without causing harm to others or ourselves.
Neither of us had found the sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement – a compassionate detachment – where we’re not numb or aloof to the suffering of others, but we’re also not flooded with their pain either.
In this way, we can still take caring action to help others, but we suffer a little less. It’s a bit more compassion, a little less empathy: Read more about the difference between empathy and compassion here.
I have a feeling some of you may be wondering if being numb is really such a bad thing. Who wants to feel the painful stuff? The problem is that losing our empathy, to the point that we’re numb, will have a negative impact on our work.
While it can be a very healthy coping strategy to put strong emotions aside in the moment, so we can do a difficult aspect of our job, we can’t stay detached all the time.
Without empathy we can no longer care for our clients and patients effectively and ethically.
We may wind up dismissing their needs, minimizing their pain, becoming rigid in our thinking, silencing their stories, withdrawing from clients and coworkers, cutting corners, and making unethical decisions.
Not to mention, our stuffed down negative emotions will find their way out in other unpleasant ways. The pressure will keep building until we explode or implode and get sick.
Ever flip out at someone you love over nothing? Start weeping at a soup commercial? Always have a cold? You get the idea.
Plus, when we're so detached that we don't feel pain, we're also not able to feel connected to the good - the joy, satisfaction, and meaningfulness of our work. There's nothing to sustain us.
So what helps?
We can work (and it is ongoing, proactive work) to find the optimal level of empathic engagement where we are still connected to those we serve, but we’re not losing touch with our own body and emotions.
To figure out the healthiest empathetic response means we have to determine the wisest approach in any given moment (this requires flexibility). One where we still feel warm and caring, but without taking on others’ stories and feelings as if they are our own. We recognize there is a boundary between us.
To do this we use healthy coping skills to help us manage what we’re bearing witness to and absorbing every day.
Start with kindness for yourself. Take a break. Self-regulate. Explore mindful breathing and physical exercise to help let go of some of the energetic pain you’ve been soaking up. Reach out to a supportive person or professional who can help you begin to process and release your feelings.
One powerful way to help ourselves is to explore practices that teach us how to feel more stable in the face of great pain. Yoga and meditation, along with other contemplative and creative practices, help us learn how to be present in the moment and feel grounded in our own bodies, which enables us to more skillfully tackle overwhelming circumstances at work.
Humanitarian aid worker Marianne Elliot writes about how this helps her find equanimity:
“One of the most dreadful things about this work is that you’re confronted by a need that is much greater than your capacity…often there was so little that you could do….But yoga helped me in learning to just sit. Sit with all this suffering and bring presence to it…And I feel that it was really with my meditation practice through yoga that I was able to do that without being overwhelmed by the pain, or feeling like I’d have an impulse to withdraw.”
We still feel pain of course. This work is so hard. Rather than judge ourselves or stuff our pain down, we can offer ourselves self-compassion in response to this recognition that we too are suffering.
Dr. Neff goes on to say, “The implication for caregivers is that we need to generate lots of compassion — for both ourselves and the person we’re caring for — in order to remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, sometimes we may need to spend the bulk of our attention on giving ourselves compassion so that we have enough emotional stability to be there for others.”
This practice of self-compassion and care can help us become well enough to access that sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement.
We can’t do it alone though. Organizations must also take steps to help their workers. This might include making sure that particularly draining and difficult tasks, such as euthanasia, are rotated, so that no one person has to shoulder this alone, providing regular breaks to recharge, and giving employees a constructive outlet to discuss and let go of work through weekly debriefing and/or support groups.
No matter where we are on the empathy continuum – too much or too little – we can take steps to help ourselves move towards that center line. By forming healthy boundaries and committing to proactive, authentic self-care, we can regularly boost our empathetic immune system.
It’s a long road, but every step taken in the direction of that healthy expression of empathy will help change how it impacts you and build your resilience, allowing you to find some balance in this difficult, but deeply meaningful work that we’re privileged to do.
You don’t have to figure this out alone. I offer online courses and individual coaching. Both exist so you can be well, while you do good work in the world.
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