When Empathy Leads to Burnout
As humans, we’re wired to feel emotions — our own, but also those of others. Modern neuroscience has actually proven that we’ve evolved to feel empathy: Our brains have specific circuits that enable us to “feel with” others. Seeing someone in pain can cause us pain. Some might call it emotional intelligence, others sensitivity. Terms aside, feeling for others is actually part of our survival.
Of course, some of us are more wired for empathy than others. Surely we all have certain friends and family members we’re more likely to call in times of need — presumably because they’re better at “feeling with” than others. This too has been proven by science: The neural circuits in our brains related to empathy can either be activated or not. Anxiety and stress often put a damper on our ability to empathize with others. Or in other cases, we may overidentify with others’ experiences and lose sight of our own needs. The idiom “I feel your pain” can actually be literal. This can be a good thing or not.
As a meditation teacher, I’ve taught several workshops to people in caregiving roles — whether mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters or hospice workers, chaplains, doctors, and therapists. People who regularly spend much of their energy caring for others can exhaust themselves to the point of burnout, a state typically described as a mix of stress, anger, depression, and frustration. To avoid burnout, caregivers need to practice self-care. This is something most of us relate to, whether or not we “officially” identify as caregiving. It can be easy to push our needs aside when we face others in pain. But the irony is that burnout makes us lose our ability to be there for anyone—others and ourselves alike.
In 2004, a neuroscientist named Tania Singer and her colleagues published an important research study that showed how pain-receptive regions in the brain activate when we feel empathy with someone else’s pain. Since their paper came out, Singer has called empathy a “precursor to compassion,” differentiating these two words we too often use interchangeably. In an interview with the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, Singer explained the difference: “When I empathize with the suffering of others…I am suffering myself…In contrast, if we feel…