Is it Possible to be Too Empathetic?
Empathy can be defined as walking in someone else’s shoes, really feeling their suffering. Certain professions attract empaths: caregivers, customer service reps, healthcare workers, emergency services workers, social workers to name a few. Perhaps by virtue of personality, professional socialization or performance expectations, they lose track of whose distress they feel. If you believe you haven’t done your job unless you’re completely drained, you could be one of them. The problem is it’s impossible to sustain a life of constant giving if you never fill the well. In very practical terms, how can you help others if you’re mired in the muck with your patient/client/customer?
Some degree of emotional distance is necessary to function in demanding jobs. Those who “give everything” usually have trouble setting boundaries, which in this instance is deciding how much of someone else’s discomfort you’re willing to take on as your own. You want to be attentive to the person and the problem without depleting yourself.
Boundary’s first cousin is compartmentalization. This is a technique by which you funnel feelings into a mental “compartment” until such time that you have the bandwidth, strength or support to experience charged emotions. Virtually everyone who serves in first responder roles has to push overwhelming feelings to the side to be effective and survive.
If you compartmentalize, it’s important to do so in a healthy way. The unhealthy way is to lock emotions in a closet and hope they’ll disappear. Since they don’t evaporate, they can show up unbidden in self-destructive behavior or relationship-destroying actions.
Healthy compartmentalization allows for strong feelings to be handled safely. There are lots of options for recognizing charged feelings and learning from them without being overcome by them. Alternatives include therapy, journaling, and support groups. To restore oneself and gain perspective, activities such as being with loved ones, engaging in hobbies, spending time in nature, meditating, and/or spiritual practices are excellent avenues.
Having a variety of ways to cope and restore is ideal. However, none of them will work well if you ignore nutrition, exercise, and sleep. When you’re overburdened, it’s tempting to skimp on the basics. Decide you won’t skip meals, that you’ll set a timer to remind yourself to get up and walk around, and that you’ll adhere to a bedtime (which means putting away screens so you can sleep). No one functions well when they’re running on empty.
Sympathy is listed as a synonym for empathy, but they are not the same thing. Sympathy is compassion but with emotional distance. When you’re sympathetic, you notice the other person’s pain but don’t take it on as your own. Used well, it acknowledges the gravity of the situation then moves rather quickly to “and this is what we’re going to do about it.” It’s both reassuring and action oriented. But when done poorly, sympathy comes across as fake or superficial. One of the worst offenders is the statement, “I know how you feel,” because you don’t.
While sympathy can be functional in emotionally challenging jobs, experiencing empathy is an important part of being in the human family. Without it, I’m not sure we’d be compelled to make changes that benefit others. For example, the natural disasters that occur with increasing regularity may lead to sympathy and an intellectual understanding of the problems, but if the tragedy doesn’t intimately affect you, you don’t feel an urgency to act. If you have empathy and put yourself in those peoples’ shoes, you might be more inclined to change personal behavior that contributes to increasingly severe climate conditions.
Our empathy is currently required for the tens of thousands of burned-out workers in this country. We need to imagine ourselves in their shoes. Professions that have always been emotionally difficult for the overly-empathetic have become traumatic during the pandemic. Those on the front lines, whether empaths or not, are exhausted. We haven’t begun to calculate the real costs to those who have given (and continue to give) so much. Nor do we know what the ultimate cost to society is if we lose them to illness, death or departure from their professions.
If you are one of those burned-out workers, please do what you can daily to “put on your oxygen mask” first. It may seem impossible to do one more thing when you’re short staffed and working long hours. The key is to choose small, easy things that provide tiny hits of physical, mental, and spiritual restoration. Get back to the basics listed above. Look for reasons to smile and laugh—and don’t feel guilty about it. Take advantage of support groups and grief groups. Talk to people who lift you up and avoid those who bring you down.
For the rest of us who aren’t in the trenches, it’s beyond time for us to feel enough personal discomfort that we make personal decisions to help wind down this pandemic. Beyond cheering each other on we have to make a real difference through our prosocial actions. We can do this.