Have you always thought that having a lot of empathy
was a positive quality for a carer? Think again.
It's why you feel depleted
Transforming empathy by training in compassion could help to solve problems such as depression, carers empathy fatigue and burnout.
Empathy is a precursor to compassion, but too much of it can have a negative impact on ourselves and others.
With empathy we would see that another was suffering and we would take on their suffering. However, empathy isn't intrinsically helpful and pro-social.
If we are frequently faced with emotional stress and trauma we can become intensely distressed ourselves, feel overwhelmed and burn out.
What is empathy fatigue and burnout?
Empathy fatigue comes about from being exposed to another person’s traumatic experience(s) and creates high levels of emotional stress. It is an extreme state of tension and stress that can result in feelings of hopelessness, indifference, pessimism and feeing emotionally cut-off.
It can cause carers to experience a weakened sense of empathy for those in their care.
The Warning Signs of Empathy Fatigue include:
Feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and drained
Avoidance and not wanting to be around those in their care
A decrease in patience and tolerance
Angry outbursts that are uncharacteristic of carer's usual behavior
Cynicism and hopelessness
Impaired ability to make rational decisions
Burnout is about being ‘worn out’. The impacts of burnout emerge gradually over time. Our drive and enthusiasm and inspirartion slowly diminishes and negative and unpleasant thoughts take over.
Brain scans have shown that similar areas of the brain are activated both in the person who suffers and the one who feels empathy. So empathic suffering is a true experience of suffering.
These unhealthy coping strategies trigger for burnout:
Working for long periods and not taking breaks
Not delegating tasks
Finding you can't say no
Keeping your feelings bottled up
Procrastinating and avoiding issues
Being a perfectionist
Taking on issues
Not talking about things
Squeezing out hobbies
Important Note - Sometimes the term 'empathy fatigue' is confusingly interchanged with 'compassion fatigue'. This can be misleading because it can misrepresent the true meaning of compassion. Compassion from the Buddhist wisdom tradition is boundless, it cannot runout and cause fatigue. In addition to this, research shows practicing compassion activates a different neuronal response in the brain to empathy.
So Change Your Empathy to Compassion
Compassion is a warm, caring emotion that does not involve feeling, for example, sadness if the other person is sad. We can acknowledge that the other is suffering but we do not take on the suffering ourselves. When we practice compassion we fill our well and it goes on increasing and increasing.
In order to better understand compassion, there have been studies on Buddhist monks. They are renowned for being experts in "pro-social" meditation and compassion. When the monks watched videos of other people suffering, MRI scans of their brains showed heightened activity in areas that are important to care, nurturing and positive social affiliation. In non-meditators, the MRI scans showed that the videos were more likely to trigger the brain areas associated with unpleasant feelings of sadness and pain.
One of the monks studied was Mattieu Ricard, a well known monk sometimes known as the 'happiest man in the world' and also a former microbiologist. He described his mindset while meditating and thinking of the suffering of those in the videos, as "activating the warm, loving caring feeling which a mother would activate towards a crying child".*
Researchers used techniques that centre on compassion or the Buddhist notion of loving-kindness on a group of participants, and managed to shift their brain activity to cause less activation in areas of the brain supporting negative feelings about themselves. They found that in the early stages of training, participants seemed to show more empathy, but with more training this shifted so that their brain activity more closely resembled the expert meditators'.
This is particularly useful training for carers under a lot of stress in order to prevent burnout.
Those of us with a lot of empathy may want to change that to compassion so we don't get overwhelmed when confronted with suffering.