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The Price for Caring - Compassion Fatigue & Empathy Burnout

You wake up and scroll through Twitter, reading up on the political events that unfolded overnight, the number of Covid19 cases and possibly another violent crime. Maybe the news plays as you eat breakfast, taking in the latest natural disasters from around the world as you sip your morning tea. Your phone pings with information on your friend’s relationship fallout after which your colleagues call you with a work crisis. It’s barely 9 a.m., and already you’re emotionally exhausted and drained out. Does that sound familiar? As humans, we’re wired to empathize with other people’s pain. It’s what prompts us to volunteer, donate, go into careers in the service industry. And now, more than ever, we’re faced with plenty of pain to grapple with.

Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS) as the stress occurs as a result of helping or wanting to help those who are in need. It also includes a profound decrease in the ability to empathize. It is often referred to as “the cost of caring” for others who are in physical or emotional pain.

Empathy burnout or empathetic distress is a me-focused response where we feel we are no longer able to empathise due o=to our own feeling of overwhelm which stems from being in the presence of the stressor for too long. It is almost a situation where empathy that turns into emotional quicksand and we just keep “feeling with” a person (feeling and feeling and feeling) to the point where we too we get overwhelmed by the distress we’re experiencing at their distress. This often leads to “withdrawal behavior”: our trying to escape our uncomfortable emotions by ducking out and leaving the other person alone with their suffering. Pathological altruism, or even plain old empathy burnout, can leave a well-intentioned person feeling dejected, depressed, and even unwilling or unable to provide compassion or aid. That’s because experiencing empathy can be seriously exhausting. If we constantly choose to show empathy and take on the pain of others, it can take a toll on our emotions and Mental Health leading to burnout and fatigue.

For many of us, the Coronavirus has brought out this compassion fatigue and empathy burnout where we are not able to empathise with people who might be having the virus or those who contract it as a result of recklessness. Sometimes we feel angry, annoyed or overwhelmed to deal with the situation and are unable to find any sympathy, let alone empathy for those struggling or suffering.

There is nothing to feel guilty about having these feelings, they are part and parcel of life, and in one way, they are the cost of caring too much! The good news is, it doesn’t have to be permanent.

Often attributed to the prolonged exposure to a particular stressor, there are a few ways we can better manage this occurrence and protect ourselves and our Mental Health which will be looked at in this article.

1. Look at compassion & empathy as a skill instead

Know that empathy and compassion is not about only feeling, but also a skill. If we can skilfully manage our emotions when we are in empathy with others can that help avoiding the feeling or compassion fatigue as we recognise our empathy as a skill instead of a emotion which can bring in a feeling of being in control. Remember that the skill of compassion and empathy can benefit others and yourself as you will be able to build a distance and be aware of your self-care, in order to provide them sustainable support.

2. Having clear boundaries

It is important to have clear boundaries to avoid this emotional burnout. It is crucial to set clear boundaries for yourselves, but also for others on what they can expect. It is necessary to often keep a distance from people’s emotions so you don’t over-internalise and exhaust yourself. This level of thinking is also better for the other person to whom you listen as it helps you be a strong place for them to lean their emotions. It is beneficial for both parities if you set your boundaries. In addition to having boundaries, it is important to believe that others can save themselves. This is the most empowering thing that you can do with others as you empower them and know that better than you, they have the key to solving their problems. Lack of boundaries also disempowers others. How can people reach their potential if they always rely on you to fix things for them? How can they feel safe enough to tell you things if you automatically go into mother hen mode and assume I know their feelings better than they do? It works around the understanding that you are there to support them emotionally, but only they themselves can overcome their own difficulties. It is wrong to assume that you know the answer better than themselves. It helps to remember that you are there to support, but you are strong, and they are strong as well. This not only reinforces boundaries but clears the role you will play in helping them through their crisis.

3. Learn to detach and not take things personally

It is important to be able to take a step back and take yourself out to the situation emotionally to avoid feeling emotionally drained, fatigues or burdened by the situation. Sometimes, you can come to the point that the others’ problems concern you personally and this can bring out a lot of stress. Do not attribute their emotions to you without confirming it with them. Ask them if they are fine, rather than assuming that it’s your fault. Remember, if you can feel other people’s feelings, it doesn’t mean they are about you.

4. Self Care is important

Very often we get so caught up in feeling the problems and pains of others thar we end up neglecting our own needs. This often also happens as we feel we are being selfish to think about ourselves when someone else is in so much distress. Self care is not selfish, it is necessary for survival and to preserve your own Mental Health. It is important to take care of yourself too and know that you do not exist to serve others at the expense of your own well being. You need to look after yourself first in order to be able to help others - as they say, you cannot pour from an empty cup.

Thus, we can see that compassion fatigue is something with some conscious effort on our part we can prevent from happening. These will help you make the best out of your gift – so that being empathetic and compassionate is a great thing for you and for others.


Written by: Yash Mehrotra

September, 2020


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