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How to deal with empathy burnout?

If you have high empathy for others, know that it is a real gift. But it can also be emotionally exhausting if the boundaries are not well set. See a few easy tips to keep balanced.

empathy burnout, overcome burnout
Photo mother with kids - Pexels

Hearing a sad story of your friend and spend the whole evening stressed? Feeling strongly that others’ problems are “about you”? Waking up and already feel distressed about the fact that your kid did not find a friend in her new school? Sounds familiar to you?

Empathy for others is the capability to relate to people and feel what they feel. A high level of empathy is good, but without conscious skills to deal with it can lead you to empathy burnout. Typically if you are a parent or caregiver.

So what is empathy burnout?

Empathy burnout happens when a person regularly spends much of their energy caring for others to the point of exhausting themselves.

Amy Alkon, in her article related to this topic, explained that with empathic distress, “we just keep “feeling with” a person (feeling and feeling and feeling). In time, we get overwhelmed by the distress we’re experiencing at their distress”. Too much of these might lead to the tendency to withdraw ourselves at certain moments from our uncomfortable emotions and let another person alone in their sufferings.

This happens not only to caregivers, such as those who work as nurses and hospital workers but also to parents. “Empathy fatigue could just as easily describe the modern style of parenting. It has become easy to mistakenly define good parenting through exhaustion, the sense that one has given everything to their child—and then a little more” (Jamil Zaki, Nautilus, 2016).

When suffered by empathy burnout, parents might a feeling of “withdrawal”, or a kind of “psychologically immune distress” towards their children due to chronic overcaring. If you are a parent, for example, you might recognize yourself in this scenario.

Know that this emotional withdrawal, experienced in empathy burnout, can make us lose our ability to be there for our kids, or others.

In addition, people suffering from empathy burnout, with their pervasive emotions, can sometimes be perceived as interfering”, and can be a “burden” to others.

Therefore, dealing with empathy burnout can be positive for ourselves, and others whom we care about.

How to best deal with empathy burnout?

Molly Shea, in her article on empathy burnout, clarified 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.”

This distinction, seemingly small on appearance, can be an important factor to prevent empathy burnout. However, the capability to distinguish between these two things does not come naturally, but through conscious training.

Consider the following:

Shift your thinking about empathy from a feeling, to a skill

Knowing that empathy is not about only feeling, but also a skill. Skillfully manage your emotions when you are in empathy with others can help. But how? Firstly by knowing that your empathy is a skill.

Remember that the skill of “empathy” can benefit others. And you will be able to put a distance and be aware of your self-care, in order to provide them sustainable support.

Set clear boundaries

Set a clear boundary for yourselves, but also for others on what they can expect. Once in a while remind yourself that “I don’t have all the answers, and it is normal”.

Remember Brené Brown? “Empathy is not feeling for someone. It’s feeling with someone.” Keep a distance from people’s emotions. You are with them, but you are not for them.

This level of thinking is also better for the other person to whom you listen. Because you can become a strong place for them to lean their emotions. Tell yourself: “It’s better for both of us if I have boundaries”.

Don’t take things personally

Sometimes, you can come to the point that the others’ problems concern you personally. And start to become stressed about this.

For example, when they are angry, or agitated, you might feel that you are something to do with these.

Ask them if they are fine, rather than assuming that it’s your fault. Remember, if you can feel other people’s feelings, it doesn’t mean they are about you.

Believe that others can save themselves

This is the most empowering thing that you can do with others, especially in the place of a parent. You are there to support them emotionally, but only they themselves can overcome their own difficulties.

Abraham Hicks interpreted by Esther Hicks, in her advice, would say “If you cover others with your strengths, you help them not”. The most empowering thing you can do is to trust that someone will make it through.

It is wrong to assume that you know the answer better than themselves. I bet that your kids would highly appreciate it if instead of covering them with your emotions and directions, you believe in them one hundred percent and allowing them to take the lead in their own path.

At the same time, believe me, you will feel much better. You are there to support, but you are strong, and they are strong as well!

In conclusion, empathy burnout is something you can avoid by conscious training. Consider empathy as a skill. Set clear boundaries – you don’t have all the answers. Don’t take things personally. And most importantly, believe in others! These will help you make the best out of your gift – so that being empathy is a great thing for you and for others.

Read more:

Burnout myths and facts

I made a friendship with my pain: How meditation helps me overcome burnout

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