Burning out for people and planet: Four dangerous self care myths

Photo by Jonas Jacobsson (Unsplash)

Against common preconceptions, it is possible to involve ourselves emotionally and keep our sanity when serving people and planet in difficult contexts. In many ways, it’s vital that we do. But the professions in question are ripe with myths about the role of empathy and emotions in our work — at a huge cost.

People whose work confronts them with the suffering of people, animals or planet— activists, aid workers, academics, social workers, journalists, healthcare professionals, change makers of any kind — often believe they have a choice between being emotionally involved and being sane.

If you’re one of them, you probably know what it’s like to enter your profession driven by passion and empathy, and end up feeling like those very qualities will cost you your health. In a bid to stay sane and in work, the logical conclusion for many— or instruction from above even — is to disconnect: emotion from job; self from other; making a living from living.

Then one day, you may realise how empty and lifeless your work has begun to feel. You’re angry, depressed, or feeling numb. Maybe you dread your work, or you’ve turned into that bitter cynic you swore you would never become. Maybe you catch yourself dealing with fellow humans as though they were products in an assembly line. Maybe you can’t find it in yourself to care anymore. Or maybe you’re caught up in an unhealthy addictive behaviour.

A SILENT EPIDEMIC

The above are some of the symptoms of compassion fatigue or empathic distress, and so-called vicarious or secondary trauma. They are a silent and costly epidemic. Their spread and impact on emotionally demanding professions are only in early stages of being documented, but already, there are indications that 1 in 5 of human rights advocates show the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, resulting from secondary traumatic stress. The same prevalence of secondary trauma is suspected amongst mental health professionals treating trauma victims. This is just the tip of an iceberg: it is estimated that between 40% and 80% of people in caregiving roles experience wider symptoms of compassion fatigue. And

when we lose our zeal, our empathy, our hope and our ability to feel with those we care for, we do so with destructive consequences not just for ourselves, but also the organisations we work for and, ultimately, the people and causes we serve.

PERSISTENT MYTHS

It doesn’t need to be this way. There are tried and tested ways to overcome the old dilemma between emotional shutdown and emotional breakdown. But persistent myths about self care, and in particular the role of empathy and feelings in emotionally demanding work, are widely unquestioned, and keeping the professions in question on the back foot.

Myth #1: Emotional distance is healthy self care.

Disconnecting emotionally is seen and often as a healthy, natural, self protective response. It is natural, and it is self protective. But healthy it is not.

The problem is, when we dial down our emotions in a given context, we cannot choose which emotions.

It may feel good, in the short run, to avoid unpleasant experiences such despair, sadness or fear. But in the long run, we end up cynical, flat and lifeless, because with the bad stuff, we’ve dialled down the good stuff, too. Joy, gratitude, inspiration, connection with others. This numbness can spill over into the rest of our lives, too. A healthier strategy involves learning to allow and manage the full range of emotions we can experience, instead of numbing them.

Myth #2: Empathy gets in the way of good work.

Empathy has been getting a bad rap lately, and there have been some prominent calls against it, such as from Yale’s Paul Bloom and Effective Altruism founder Peter Singer. And the argument is compelling: It sounds highly plausible that it is dangerous to let feelings guide our actions when faced with others’ suffering. Empathic distress impairs our judgment, impartiality, and ability to function.

The thing is, empathy is as much of a danger to us as it is critical for our surviving and thriving. Without empathy, we can be as dysfunctional as when in empathic distress. And, Bloom, Singer and many others considerably overestimate our capacity for putting rational thinking above feelings: In fact, they may be impossible to separate. As a study of chess players demonstrates — chess players are arguably the closest a human being can get to acting like a computer — , emotions underlie even the coldest of human calculations. So,

the question isn’t whether or not feelings should be involved. It’s about knowing how. The best leadership I’ve seen, the best healthcare I’ve had, the most compelling campaigns, negotiations, and responses to emergency I’ve witnessed all came from people who were highly in tune with their own and with others’ emotions.

But they knew the difference between the two. They weren’t collapsing under other people’s suffering, but neither were they the unfeeling robots our professional environments often have us believe we need to be to do our work well.

Myth #3: Compassion fatigue.

“Compassion fatigue is a myth?”, you ask? Not quite. But compassion fatigue is a really unfortunate choice of word, and it is helpful to know why. As I’ve explained elsewhere, we can’t actually tire of compassion. What we fatigue of is ‘affective empathy’ — our visceral, painful mirroring of other’s suffering. Compassion, neurologically speaking, is a different mechanism altogether: a way to stay fully present to suffering, without overwhelm and paralysis. And as neuroscience now shows — on the back of insights developed over millennia — it can be strengthened and expanded like a muscle.

We no longer need to ask where the line is between feeling too little and too much. Instead, we can shift the line.

We can learn how to feel fully in a healthier way. And in professions fuelled by care for people and planet, that’s sorely needed.

Myth #4: Self care is all we’ve got

Of course, reducing exposure (i.e. time off), good sleep, healthy eating, physical exercise, talking are all helpful or essential strategies. And there is talk of how important it is for self care not to be yet another pressure on individuals as consumers, but a form of collective care for one another. But for most sentient, empathic beings working on the world’s most pressing social and environmental challenges, there is no amount of yoga, talking, sleep or kale smoothies that will lighten the sheer sadness and terror of attending to traumatised victims of war, cancer patients or a dying planet on a daily basis.

Something more powerful is needed for us to stand strong in these conditions, without losing what makes us human. And we’ve already got it. Thanks to recent advancements in neuroscience, we now know that

compassion is an emotionally connected response to suffering that doesn’t deplete, overwhelm or paralyse us like empathic distress. It’s part of our natural response to kin, and it can be expanded and strengthened like a muscle.

COMPASSION: A WAY TO KEEP OUR SPARK IN TRYING CIRCUMSTANCES

By nature, for most of us, compassion comes more easily with e.g. our offspring, and takes longer to cultivate for people people we perceive as ‘other’. So we can do two things: First, we can learn techniques that help us step up from empathy into compassion, rather than falling into empathic distress. And, we can learn to expand our ‘circle of compassion’ — the circle of people we respond to as kind, as people just like us. The mind practices that help achieve this have been tried and tested for thousands of years in more secluded, monastic circles, but neuroscience has been providing compelling reasons for a much wider application.

The potential reward is huge: We can keep our spark, our health, and stick with our vocation. In the words of Joan Halifax,

Compassion is the most powerful means I know for keeping our feet firmly planted on the earth and our hearts wide open. […] Compassion helped me stay grounded in empathy and navigate away from empathic distress. […] Compassion has been my greatest ally in the hardest of times.

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