Empathy Burnout: What to Do When Caring Too Much Takes Its Toll
One of the admirable traits we humans can have is empathy. It’s what helps us connect, understand each other’s feelings, and offer support, a helping hand, or a shoulder to cry on when someone needs it. Yet, like everything else, too much empathy can become too much too soon, causing burnout.
Yes, empathy burnout can be real and it’s important to spot its signs before it takes a serious toll on our well-being. When you’re on the roll caring for others, you might find yourself feeling emotionally drained or overwhelmed.
Just as your car runs out of gas at one point in time, you might also run out of emotional energy to expend if you keep giving without giving yourself the time to rest. Empathy is admirable, but not when it comes at your expense.
So, let’s take a moment to understand what empathy burnout is, what it looks like, what might cause it, and what to do when caring too much begins to take its toll on your overall well-being and health.
Empathy Burnout: What is It?
Empathy burnout, also sometimes confused with compassion fatigue, is when you become too emotionally drained and overwhelmed due to the constant absorption of others’ emotions and experiences without giving yourself any time to rest and regroup. It’s like pouring from an empty cup.
While empathy can be a wonderful quality to have, extending it too much can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and eventual burnout.
Most often, it is healthcare workers who are at the highest risk of developing empathy burnout and so are primary care providers and HSPs (Highly sensitive people). It doesn’t matter if you’re offering support because of professional reasons or personal reasons, caring too; especially emotionally; for others and not caring for yourself can cause empathy burnout.
Empathy Burnout Symptoms Look Like…
You can’t always easily spot empathy burnout symptoms, but there are some symptoms and signs that you can keep a lookout for;
- You experience chronic fatigue and are always tired even after sleeping well
- You experience increased irritability and get annoyed easily at others
- You want to be alone most of the time and go out of your way to avoid social interactions
- You experience emotional numbness and feel like you don’t care about things anymore
- You find it difficult to concentrate on your day-to-day tasks
- You experience physical symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, and more
- You find it increasingly hard to connect with others’ feelings after a time
Empathy Burnout vs. Compassion Fatigue
Most people confuse empathy burnout with compassion fatigue and while these two can be related to one another, there are some subtle differences that you should know about.
Empathy burnout relates to the emotional exhaustion that can result from constantly absorbing and sharing the emotions of others. It focuses on the emotional aspects of empathizing with others’ feelings. Empathy burnout, despite popular beliefs, is not limited to professions such as caregiving and healthcare. It can affect anyone who frequently supports and cares for others’ emotions.
Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is related to the feelings of indifference, apathy, and emotional numbness that occur in people who often care for others in a professional capacity. Healthcare workers, social workers, and therapists who regularly offer compassionate care and support to others struggle with compassion fatigue.
What Causes Empathy Burnout?
Various factors can contribute to empathy burnout. Knowing the causes of empathy burnout can help prevent and cope well with the condition. It is believed that because you’re always surrounded by heightened emotions of others – often negative – it can wear down your emotional defenses, leaving you vulnerable to burnout.
High-stress jobs where emotional support is a constant given can also put you at risk of developing empathy burnout if you’re not careful. Add your personal life and its problems to the mix of helping others emotionally and you are left feeling overwhelmed.
More often than not, when we’re caring for others, we ignore our well-being and forget to take breaks to recharge our emotional batteries. This lack of self-care can also exacerbate the risk of empathy burnout. Self-neglect can also make us fail in setting boundaries and limits on how much emotional support we can provide. Give away or absorb too many emotions and you’ll have empathy burnout to deal with.
How to Avoid Empathy Burnout?
Luckily for us, empathy burnout can be prevented. It might take more than just one mental health day or break to do it, but it can be done. Check out the ways you can avoid empathy burnout or recover from one;
1. Take Care of Yourself
Prioritize taking care of yourself through relaxation, hobbies, and downtime. Self-care can help you recover and manage the overwhelming emotions you might have absorbed. Listen to your body and do what it needs to relax and recover.
2. Set Boundaries and Limits
Learn to say “NO” when you feel overwhelmed and too emotionally drained to take care of others. You need not overextend yourself for others especially when you have almost nothing left to give or take. Talk to your loved ones and share your limits and boundaries with them to protect yourself. A 2021 research suggests that setting clear emotional boundaries can prevent compassion fatigue.
3. Talk About Your Feelings
Just because you are a good listener, doesn’t mean that you can’t be a good talker. If you feel overwhelmed and emotionally drained, talk about your feelings with your friends and family or even a therapist to release the pent-up emotions. Think of it like cleaning the cup before you’re ready to pour more into it and to others.
4. Practice Meditation
Mindfulness and meditation can be great ways to stay grounded and manage stress. This can also help you feel overwhelmed with your emotions and give you time and ways to relax your mind and body. A study from 2022 found that engaging in regular self-care activities, such as meditation and exercise, can significantly reduce empathy burnout
5. Take Breaks
Step away from emotionally taxing situations when needed. You can’t continue if you don’t take breaks so if you want to help and support others, you need to regroup with yourself and take care of your needs as well. Frequent breaks from being always available can help.
6. Seek Professional Help
Don’t hesitate to consult a therapist or counselor if your emotions become too much. A therapist or counselor can help you make sense of your feelings and sort out emotions that come from others and those that are your own. Too much empathy can also leave you feeling stressed out and can worsen your symptoms, so seek help when you need it.
7. Try Physical Activities
Exercise can help reduce stress and increase your overall well-being. Simple and short exercises such as walking or yoga – even 10 minutes a day – can help you deal with stress and burnout symptoms and make you feel motivated and energized.
8. Journal Your Feelings
You can also avoid empathy burnout by writing your feelings to process and release them. Journaling can help transfer your thoughts and feelings from your mind to paper, making you feel light and emotionally better.
9. Engage in Positive Activities
Surround yourself with uplifting experiences and people, those who want to make you feel better and positive about yourself. If you’re experiencing negative empathy, then it is suggested that you remove yourself from such situations and surround yourself with positive people who also help and support you just as much as you do them.
10. Delegate Your Emotional Burdens
You don’t always have to carry all the emotional burdens of others on your shoulders alone. You can learn to delegate your emotional burdens to others. You can do this by joining a support group or seeking help from your support network.
Empathy burnout is a real but challenging condition that can impact your mental, emotional, and physical well-being as well as your relationships. Understanding the signs and symptoms of empathy burnout and the causes of the condition can help you develop healthy coping strategies to recover and avoid empathy burnout.
It’s not selfish to take care of yourself. So, let’s work on our empathy without losing ourselves in the process, shall we?
I hope this article helped you understand what empathy burnout is and what to do when caring too much begins to take its toll. Let me know your thoughts and views in the comments below.