I’ve always been someone who valued being of service to others. Like a lot of people, I was taught “tis better to give than to receive” and that I should “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I’ve always rooted for the underdog and been drawn to want to help others in need.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I chose to become a psychologist. It seemed like the perfect fit for someone who cares deeply about others and who prides herself on her highly developed empathy. However, across my career, I’ve learned that being highly empathetic isn’t always a good thing. In fact, it can sometimes get in the way of being able to help others effectively.
Isn’t Empathy a Good Thing?
Empathy, or the ability to recognize someone else’s emotions and experience them yourself, is frequently thought of as a quality that we should actively cultivate. After all, research has shown that empathy is associated with greater intimacy and relationship satisfaction in romantic relationships. Empathetic leaders are rated as more effective.
We should all be more empathetic, right?
Not necessarily. As is the case with a lot of things in life, too much of a good thing can actually begin to work against you.
I witnessed this first hand, working with many people in the helping professions. And, I experienced it myself.
When I started my graduate school training to become a psychologist, I was a bit idealistic. I had visions of saving the world, one person at a time in the therapy room. I anticipated leaving the office every day, feeling refreshed and invigorated by the transformations I would be able to help my clients to achieve.
In talking with other helping professionals, I know I wasn’t alone in that sense of naive optimism. It seems that a lot of us who enter these type of fields have a deep desire — sometimes even an inner calling — to compassionately nurture others back to health.
During my training and practice as a psychologist I’ve certainly had many of those rewarding experiences that I had hoped for — for example, helping an international student to assert her independence from her controlling boyfriend on the other side of the world, helping a young woman to deal with the grief of losing her brother to suicide, and assisting a man who had his first psychotic break get the resources he needed so he could return to school. I’ve felt the thrill of supporting clients in saving long-term relationships, or gaining the confidence and leadership skills to get a big promotion.
Still, by the time I had completed my training, my expectations about what my career might entail were less shiny and happy for a number of reasons.
For example, there were the inevitable concerns about clients that lingered long after I had left the office— like wondering if my client would be able to scrape together the sixty-five cents for discounted bus fare so she could attend her much-needed appointment, or if another patient would follow the plan we had set out if he felt that he wanted to harm himself.
At other times, I felt disillusioned — like the time I worked with severely depressed woman who, despite her incapacitating back pain and health issues was continually turned down for disability benefits by a flawed system. I felt helpless to assist her, and sad for what she was going through.
While some of the professionals I worked with seemed to have developed effective coping skills for handling the emotional demands of the job, I also worked with many others who developed compassion fatigue.
Dr. Charles Finley, the Director of the Tulane Traumatology Institute defines compassion fatigue as,
an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.
Common signs of the overwhelm associated with compassion fatigue can include isolation, numbing your feelings, apathy, burnout, and even self-medicating in order to cope. In some cases, people might even experience underlying resentment for those they are helping.
In other words, a very strong desire to identify with, serve others, and feel their pain, may paradoxically make you less effective in helping them.
Are You Too Empathetic?
While compassion fatigue is clearly something that people in the helping professions would be particularly at risk for, the reality is that anyone who places a high value on being empathetic or helpful could potentially experience it.
If you find yourself caring so much for others that you put their needs above your own, you might eventually experience compassion fatigue. Or, if you’re so focused on being available to help others, without taking the time to replenish yourself, you might find yourself succumbing to it.
Some questions you might ask yourself to see if you could be putting yourself at risk for compassion fatigue include:
- Do you consistently put others’ needs above your own?
- Do you avoid advocating for yourself, so as not to make others uncomfortable?
- When you are around someone else who is struggling, do his or her feelings become your own and affect your own sense of well-being?
- Are you out of touch with your own wants and needs because you are so focused on the wants and needs of others?
If this article is resonating with you, and you recognize that you may be at risk for compassion fatigue, you might be having some mixed feelings. After all, you probably like helping other people. So should you strive to focus only on yourself? Should you stop being of service to others?
Of course not! After all, research has found that giving to others makes us feel happier. Giving may be linked to health benefits, such as increased longevity. In addition, Wharton professor, Adam Grant’s research suggests that people who are the most giving, can actually be the most successful — if they deploy their efforts to help others appropriately. However, that same research also found that if you’re too generous with your giving (i.e. being a “selfless giver”) you can burn yourself out, get taken advantage of, and actually be less likely to achieve success.
The key is to strike the right balance.
The Prescription for Compassion Fatigue
To prevent compassion fatigue, some professionals suggest developing compassion (or “rational compassion”) as opposed to empathy. The difference lies in whether or not you are aiming to actually feel the other person’s emotions.
For example, when people are training to be empathetic, they are encouraged to try to actually experience someone else’s emotions. In contrast, when they are trained to be compassionate, they are encouraged to feel positively and warmly about the someone else, but without aiming to experience the other person’s emotions. (Note: In using these definitions, “compassion fatigue” would more accurately be called “empathy fatigue”).
So, if you were aiming to be supportive to a friend for example, you should strive for compassion, as opposed to empathy. This would help you to maintain some objective distance, and according to research, would likely actually result in kinder behavior.
After all, think about it. Taking on someone else’s negative emotions is unpleasant, and puts you in the position of having to manage your own uncomfortable emotions, while simultaneously trying to help your friend. However, if you perceived your friend compassionately with warmth, but without taking on his or her emotions, you would put yourself in a position to be more clearheaded and calm as you supported him or her.
The bottom line? When you are striving to help others, make sure to direct some of your compassion towards yourself. In particular, if you’re someone who is in a position in which you do a lot of helping (whether because it’s your job, or simply because you’re the one that everyone confides in), make sure to take time to recharge. You’re as deserving of care and nurturance as anyone else.
As the Dalai Lama said,
“If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. You will not be able to love others. If you have no compassion for yourself then you are not able of developing compassion for others.”
Take heed, so you can fully experience the joy of helping others.
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Mindfulness can also help you to cultivate compassion. To learn more, click here.