How to Protect Yourself From 'Empathy Burnout'
August 31, 2018
You wake up and scroll through Twitter, reading up on the political scandals that unfolded overnight. Maybe the news plays as you eat breakfast, taking in the latest natural disasters from around the world as you sip your coffee. Your phone pings with info on your friend’s relationship woes.
It’s barely 9 a.m., and already you’re emotionally exhausted.
Feel 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. Social media has sped up the news cycle, and the political climate can feel more reactionary every day. Texting with parents and siblings can keep families close—but also ensure that any tension stays top of mind.
If empathizing with others leaves you feeling overwhelmed, or even resentful, know that you’re not a bad person. Turns out, there’s a limit to how much empathy a person can feel and extend toward others.
Roshi Joan Halifax, a spiritual teacher and author of the recently released Standing at the Edge: Finding Freedom Where Fear and Courage Meet, has spent years speaking with people who work in hyper-compassionate situations: At prison hospitals, hospice care, and remote impoverished places. She found that while people were fueled by empathy and altruism, they typically hit a limit, at which point they experienced burnout, depression, and despair.
“I write in my new book about the profound value of altruism in our lives and in the world,” Halifax told the Greater Good Science Center. “In fact, we wouldn’t be alive without it. And yet when altruism is unhealthy, when it goes too far, and it harms one physically or mentally...then it tips into what has been called by social psychologists ‘pathological altruism.’”
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. The difference between empathy and compassion: With the first, we actually feel the pain of others, and with the second we simply understand how they might feel. And if we constantly choose empathy and take on the pain of others, it can take a toll.
“Like heavy-duty cognitive tasks, such as keeping multiple pieces of information in mind at once or avoiding distractions in a busy environment, empathy depletes our mental resources,” writes Adam Waytz in the Harvard Business Review. “So jobs that require constant empathy can lead to ‘compassion fatigue,’ an acute inability to empathize that’s driven by stress, and burnout, a more gradual and chronic version of this phenomenon.”
Plus, all that energy you put into digital empathy (ex. scrolling political tweets, reading GoFundMe pages) can leave you with less energy when you need to empathize with friends or family IRL—and with yourself.
“Empathy doesn’t just drain energy and cognitive resources—it also depletes itself,” writes Waytz. “The more empathy I devote to my spouse, the less I have left for my mother; the more I give to my mother, the less I can give my son. Both our desire to be empathic and the effort it requires are in limited supply.”
The good news: You can take steps to curb empathic distress while still allowing yourself to empathize and take action. Here are three ways to start:
1. Switch From Distress to Compassion
It’s hard not to think, for example, of your own childhood when you hear about children stuck in a political tug-of-war. And that’s a good thing—relating to others is what prompts us to act in socially responsible ways and generally be good people. But carrying someone else’s suffering can go too far.
“On some level you are that person (who is suffering), and on another level you aren’t,” says Halifax. “Vicariously experiencing the suffering of another can truly disable us, whereas what compassion does is provide the medium for us to allow concern to be there but it engages other features, like attentional balance and emotional balance that make it possible for us to find the middle path between objectification and over-identification or too much empathy.”
If you find yourself physically reeling from a friend’s news, or something you read on Facebook, pause and remind yourself that what you’re hearing about isn’t happening to you. You can understand how they might feel without taking on that pain yourself. Reframe the situation with compassion instead of empathy, and then decide how you can help.
2. Filter Your News Intake
If you find yourself drained after scrolling through Twitter or watching the evening news, try taking a break. It doesn’t have to be permanent, or even cold-turkey—you can limit your news time to five minutes, twice a day, or take a three-day break.
Worried you’re shirking your role as a well-informed citizen? Don’t be—you’ll likely hear of any major news from a pal, and you can always research any current events or cause you’re particularly interested in.
The point here is to filter, rather than bury your head in the sand. By eliminating the things that upset you but are ultimately out of your control (or irrelevant), you’ll free up more space for what matters.
3. Take a Few Breaths
If you find yourself carrying the pain of others, it can help to reset with a few deep breaths. Try this breathing pattern, meant to release stress and help you ground yourself in your body—crucial when you find yourself taking on others’ suffering:
●︎ Put one hand on your stomach, where your diaphragm is located, and another on your chest.
●︎ Take a full, deep breath in—you should feel the hand on your diaphragm rising, while the one on your chest stays relatively still.
●︎ Breath in slowly, until your diaphragm is as full as possible. Hold for a beat. Then, breathe out slowly until you’re empty of air.
●︎ Pause, then repeat for a few more rounds. Don’t focus on how long each breath is, but rather how your body feels in the moment.
Repeat this exercise as needed—think of it like your go-to tool when empathy burnout creeps in. Remember: Empathy and compassion help us thrive and build strong connections—but it’s always important to protect yourself in the process.
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