People may have described empathy as walking in someone else’s shoes.
But what if we got it wrong?
If we walk in someone else’s shoes, we might find ourselves taking ownership of someone else’s story and overstepping our boundaries. When this happens, we become prone to empathy fatigue, which can lead to burnout and increased stress.
How do we deal with empathy fatigue? In this article, we’ll look at empathy fatigue, its symptoms and causes, and 12 ways to overcome it. Let’s dive in!
What is Empathy Fatigue?
Empathy fatigue describes the physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion that can result from providing emotional support to others. It is especially prevalent in those who may be overexposed to others’ emotional needs in a supportive role (healthcare workers, teachers, nurses, etc.). Overexposure to emotional needs can lead to stress and increase cortisol levels contributing to someone’s inability to respond with compassion.
While the stress of overexposure to others’ emotional needs is a factor that contributes to empathy fatigue, it occurs most often when someone lacks boundaries and takes on someone else’s pain or emotion as their own. Thus, feeling for vs. feeling with someone often causes empathy fatigue.
Research by Brené Brown indicates that “empathy distress fatigue” results from an inward-focused emotional response to others’ needs. For example, if you have a tendency to insert yourself into someone else’s story rather than hearing their story as their own, then you might struggle with empathy fatigue.
Healthy empathic stance: “I honor your struggle.”
Unhealthy empathic stance (not actual empathy): “I own your struggle as my own.”
“We can respond empathetically only if we are willing to be present to someone’s pain. If we’re not willing to do that, it’s not real empathy.”-Brené Brown, Ph.D., MSW
Signs of Empathy Fatigue
Do you struggle with empathy fatigue? Pay attention to the signs. When you lack boundaries and take on someone else’s pain or emotion as your own, the symptoms of empathy fatigue you may experience include:
- Feeling overwhelmed. I can’t seem to function due to someone else’s pain.
- Feeling emotionally drained. I don’t have the emotional capacity to extend more care.
- Difficulty sleeping. My thoughts about your experience leave me tossing and turning.
- Difficulty concentrating. My mind is ruminating about situations outside of my control.
- Physical exhaustion. I don’t have the energy to be present with you.
- Apathy. I’ve become numb from overexposure to others’ pain.
- Irritability. I can’t give attention to one more thing. Get out of my way.
- Feeling emotionally disconnected. I’ve taken on your pain as my own and no longer understand your perspective.
Let’s look at the ways you can protect yourself against empathy fatigue.
13 Ways to Protect Yourself Against Empathy Fatigue
Get perspective (Hint: It’s not about walking in their shoes!)
According to research by Theresa Wiseman, one defining attribute of empathy is perspective-taking. This means to “see the world as others see it.” Without perspective, you don’t have empathy at all, and you’re more likely to fall into empathy fatigue.
Perspective-taking protects you against empathy fatigue because it helps you focus on the other rather than on your own emotional response and ownership of their pain. Gaining perspective requires you to be outward-focused, ask questions, and seek understanding. Perspective-taking welcomes you to understand and honor another’s story without making it about yourself.
Brené Brown suggests empathy is not about “walking in someone else’s shoes.” Instead, she suggests empathy is learning about what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes and believe them even when their experience doesn’t align with your reality.
For example, someone might come to you at work and say, “My boss just yelled at me about how I performed on this project, and I’m feeling rejected.”
A feeling for a response might sound something like, “Wow, I don’t believe he would say something like that. Are you sure? What did you do? I’m so angry. I’ll talk to him about it and fix it for you.”
A feeling with response might sound something like, “Wow, that’s a tough position to be in. I know what it feels like to work hard on a project and feel unappreciated. I see you. Do you want to process your situation together?”
One of the best examples of how empathy works is expressed in this animated video narrated by Brené Brown:
Action step: Ask yourself, what does it look like to honor someone’s story and feel with them rather than for them?
Refrain from comparison
One way to fall victim to empathy fatigue is to compare someone’s pain to someone else’s worse pain, including your own. Initially, it may sound like you’re attempting to be supportive or provide perspective, but it tends to dismiss someone’s genuine feelings.
Maybe you’ve heard something like this: “I know you’re hungry, but there are starving kids in Africa.”
Comparison, especially when trying to be empathetic, turns your focus back on your discomfort with someone else’s struggle—or worse, puts you in a position of judgment toward the other person’s pain. In either case, comparison creates disconnection and can overwhelm you with the “weight of the world.”
Action Step: Instead of comparison, try mentally putting your internal biases on a shelf. Turn your focus outward toward the person you’re connecting with. Ask questions to gain a greater understanding. You make others feel truly heard by asking questions and listening with intention. Ultimately, this focus gives you greater freedom to connect with others without the added strain of measuring their pain against yours or others.
Feel your emotions
One of the keys to protecting yourself against empathy fatigue is self-awareness and recognizing your own emotions as you show up for the needs of others. This starts with allowing yourself to feel your feelings and not ignore them.
Prioritizing “me time” and creating space for yourself to feel your emotions is especially critical if you regularly expose yourself to the needs of others. Creating space might require you to say no to obligations or even certain relationships that require you to overextend yourself. Frontline workers and caretakers are especially prone to empathy fatigue due to the counterintuitive coping mechanisms they tend to adopt to deal with the everyday stress of showing up for people.
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Attention: It’s important to note here that if you have developed a coping mechanism to numb your emotions over time, what you may be experiencing is PTSD, not simply empathy fatigue. Since empathy fatigue happens when we take on other people’s emotions as our own without taking care of ourselves, more profound issues are likely at play. You may also struggle with boundaries, codependency, burnout, or anxiety. If you think this might be you, it’s essential to seek professional support. Your emotional and mental health matters!
Action Step: Find a safe space to feel and express your emotions. Seek out a trusted friend, therapist, or even a journal. Feeling and expressing your feelings will help you gain the self-awareness you need to show up for yourself and others well.
We are so honored to help you find authentic connections! If you are struggling to find the help you need, please note that all content found on this website is not to be considered professional medical advice. It is always best to consult a doctor or licensed therapist with any questions or concerns in regards to your physical or mental health. For a good resource for therapists, you can check out Mental Health America’s helpful list.
Mindfulness is a practice of staying present with yourself and being aware of your emotions, triggers, and stresses throughout the day. Practicing mindfulness might be meditation, journaling, yoga, walking in nature, or anything that brings you back to a clear mind and self-awareness.
Similar to feeling your emotions, practicing mindfulness is a great way to combat empathy fatigue; as you become more self-aware, you will be better able to set healthy boundaries that allow you to be present with the emotions of others.
Ultimately, research shows that mindfulness improves your expression of empathy and compassion and helps you develop deeper connections.
Action Step: Try a mindfulness activity like doing a full body scan and pay attention to how you feel. Consider sitting in a sauna or aromatherapy. Need more ideas? Try one of these 30 mindfulness activities to get started.
According to Brené Brown’s research, empathy without boundaries is not empathy.
Let’s go back to the idea of feeling for vs. with someone.
- It might look like this when you feel for someone: “This is how I feel about your grief… Here are some solutions.”
- It might look like this when you feel with someone: “The grief you feel is real and hard. I’ve been there too. Do you want to talk more about what you’re experiencing?”
Do you see the difference? If you try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you not only become more disconnected but also overstep their boundaries and input your emotional response into their experience. Your emotions become entangled with their experience while also dismissing it, ultimately breaking down your connection.
To feel with someone, try these tactics:
- Instead of providing solutions to their problem, listen.
- Instead of feeling sorry for someone, let them know you understand how they feel.
- Instead of telling someone how they should feel, accept the discomfort of their emotions.
- Instead of discharging blame for the shame they might feel, say, “that must have been hard.”
- Instead of comparing their experience with yours, ask more questions about theirs.
- Instead of dismissing their feelings with something like “You’re wrong. That’s not true.” Say, “I believe you.”
Fortunately, many resources are available to help you establish healthy boundaries in your relationships to build stronger connections with the people in your life.
Action Step: Learn five ways to set boundaries.
Take a social media break
Being on social media can be a great way to stay connected to others. Unfortunately, heavy use of social media can also lead to anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues, especially in young people.
In addition to people comparing themselves to others and getting addicted, social media also gives people 24/7, real-time access to news and events going on in the world. Without healthy boundaries and self-awareness, overexposure to traumatic events can contribute to secondary traumatic distress, making it harder to show up for people with empathy.
Your social media break might look something like this:
- Limiting yourself to 30 minutes a day on social media
- Only using social media in short stints for 15 minutes at a time, maybe three to five times a day at the max
- Taking ten days or even a month-long break to disconnect
- Filling the time usually spent on social media with a new activity you’ve wanted to try
Action Step: Give yourself a digital detox. Taking a break from social media once in a while, especially if you think you might have an addiction, can significantly impact your mental health and your ability to be supportive of others.
Take care of your basic needs.
Whatever your profession, it isn’t easy to be emotionally available to others if you haven’t first taken care of your basic needs.
If your blood sugar is low, for example, you might be more irritable and find yourself getting frustrated when someone comes to you with an issue when you might otherwise be readily present. Want to be more empathetic? Try eating a sandwich!?
In all seriousness, though, there’s a reason the safety instructions when you get on an airplane include putting on your oxygen mask first before helping someone else. You will not be able to help anyone else if you can’t breathe!
Action Step: Ask yourself what you need now and take care of it. When you feel drained, pay attention to your body, emotions, and thoughts. How do you figure out what you need?
Start with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and go through a checklist.
- Physiological: Are you hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Cold?
- Safety/security: Are you secure?
- Belonging/Love: Are you lonely? Disconnected?
- Esteem: Are you taking steps toward your goals?
- Self-actualization: Are you fulfilled?
Practice deep self-care
Similar to taking care of your basic needs, self-care also helps you overcome empathy fatigue. While your basic needs cover food, water, shelter, hygiene, and sleep, self-care includes engaging in activities that relax or bring joy.
Your self-care routine may look different than someone else’s, depending on your personality type, but the benefits are substantial—research indicates it boosts self-esteem, productivity, and happiness.
What’s your go-to self-care activity?
- Listening to Music
- Spending a day at the spa
- Gratitude journaling
- Creating art
- Spending time with friends
- Playing games
- Experiencing new restaurants
- Visiting the theater
- Watching movies
Prioritize your mental health
Prioritizing your mental health can significantly impact your empathy satisfaction and your ability to show up well for others. A recent research study on nurses showed that psychological intervention had a significant impact on reducing burnout and improving empathy satisfaction in the workplace.
Strategies to take care of your mental health include many of the suggestions already mentioned in this article, but a few we would add are:
- Paying attention to your thought patterns. To do this, you should filter your thoughts through a set of questions. For example:
- Are you prone to black-and-white thinking? This is wrong, or this is right.
- Are you overgeneralizing? She didn’t respond to my text. She doesn’t love me.
- Are you jumping to conclusions? I didn’t get invited. Everyone always forgets about me.
- Are you catastrophizing? I can’t travel there. What if I get robbed?
- Practicing gratitude. A gratitude mindset is a simple way to improve your life satisfaction. To do this, start a gratitude journal or end each day with your family or partner talking about what you’re thankful for today.
- Setting goals and priorities. Your goals can provide clarity of direction and give you the agency to move forward with a positive mindset. To get started, you might think about each area of your life—career, friends, family, health, spirit, and hobbies—then write down your desires for each area in five years, one year, and one month. Break down your goals into smaller, attainable chunks, and build them into your weekly schedule.
Take a break
Empathy fatigue is draining, no doubt. It can be a lot to carry the emotions of others. This is especially true for caregivers and people in caregiving roles who expose themselves to the suffering of others.
Taking breaks, even short ones, can help you manage your stress.
- Short breaks. In the height of overwhelm, you may need help to focus on the task at hand or attend to someone’s needs. In these moments, you may not always be able to take a break. In the short term, your break may look like a five-minute breather.
- Medium breaks. In the long term, it’s valuable to be preventative and build breaks into your schedule. These can look like 20-minute breaks in the morning to recenter, breathe, and meditate.
- Long breaks. Your break may also include a full-week vacation to disconnect and care for your mental health.
Action step: Look at your calendar and block out your breaks. Being intentional about your breaks, both the short and the long ones can help you prioritize your well-being. For example, you might try a workday schedule like this:
- Morning: Spend 30 minutes in meditation before beginning the day. Try alternating meditation and exercise each day, or if you have time, do both.
- Meetings: Block your meetings for 45 minutes instead of an hour. Give yourself 15 minutes at the end of each meeting to take a walk and let your subconscious process your thoughts.
- Lunch: Completely disconnect from work during lunch. This is an excellent boundary practice. Take this time to eat and do an activity you love—play a game, chat with a friend, or take a walk.
- Afternoon break: Set aside 20 to 30 minutes mid-afternoon to step away from the hassle of the day and recalibrate. Take this time to journal, meditate, read, or do something creative.
- End of your day: Spend time with a partner or friend disconnected from work and errands, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Share your highs and lows of the day and check-in. If you cannot connect with someone, spend this time in your gratitude journal.
Get out of your element
If empathy fatigue has brought you to burnout, taking a break is critical. However, your break might need more activities to help eliminate your everyday thought patterns or emotional distress.
Getting out of your element and trying something fun or learning something new might be the best medicine for you (and could even slow cognitive aging!).
Action step: Think of a new activity you’ve wanted to try or a place you’ve wanted to see. Want to take a pottery class? Is there a new exhibit at the museum you’re interested in? Have you met someone new recently you want to get to know better? Make plans and get it on the calendar. Be intentional about setting this time for yourself weekly or monthly.
Connect with others
An essential aspect of mental well-being is a connection with others, and it is especially critical for those experiencing emotional distress, traumatic stress, or empathy fatigue. These symptoms may indicate the need for deeper, authentic connections with others.
Human connection is essential for survival.
In research by John Cacioppo, as highlighted in Atlas of the Heart, he discovered that those who are lonely are 45% more likely to die early. Loneliness is more likely to increase your chances of dying early than obesity (20%) and excessive drinking (30%)!
Who are the people who bring you joy, energy, or peace of mind? With whom do you feel safe to be your authentic self? It’s time to connect!
Action step: Get a date on the calendar to connect with a friend. Be intentional about spending time with others who re-energize your mental well-being. Lacking in the friend department? Learn how to build trust and create new friendships.
Empathy Fatigue FAQs
What is empathy?
Empathy is a tool of compassion and a skill set for understanding someone’s experience, as described by empathy researcher Brené Brown.
“Empathy, the most powerful tool of compassion, is an emotional skill set that allows us to understand what someone is experiencing and to reflect back that understanding.” Brené Brown, Ph.D., MSW
Want to develop your empathy skills? Check out our article on the 15 habits of highly empathetic people.
What are the symptoms of empathy fatigue?
The symptoms of empathy fatigue are feeling overwhelmed or emotionally drained, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, physical exhaustion, apathy, irritability, and/or feeling emotionally disconnected or numb. You are more likely to feel these symptoms when you lack boundaries and take on someone’s pain or emotion as your own.
What causes empathy fatigue?
Empathy fatigue is caused by over-identification with the feelings of others. It occurs when we take on other people’s emotions as our own without taking care of ourselves.
Things that can cause empathy fatigue include overexposure to traumatic events (including secondary traumatic stress), often on social media. A job that demands continual care for others especially those experiencing mental or physical pain (healthcare workers, therapists, first responders, etc.), or requires careful emotional attention (teachers, clergy, etc.), can also cause empathy fatigue. Lack of self-care, connection, and boundaries tend to cause empathy fatigue and can indicate an unhealthy, people-pleasing personality or codependency.
What is empathy fatigue vs. compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue and empathy fatigue are two distinct yet related concepts.
Compassion fatigue is an emotional, physical, and spiritual exhaustion that can result from caring for others who are suffering. It is caused by prolonged exposure to intense emotional distress and can be precipitated by a traumatic event or prolonged stress.
On the other hand, empathy fatigue is a state of emotional and physical exhaustion that can result from feeling for vs. feeling with people and taking on others’ emotions as our own. It is caused by the inability to effectively manage or process one’s own emotions in the presence of others.
Is empathy fatigue on the rise?
Empathy fatigue is a psychological phenomenon becoming more common in today’s society. It is caused by an accumulation of stress and exhaustion due to excessive emotional, mental, and physical demands. Those who lack boundaries are especially prone to empathy fatigue.
Increased social media usage and constant exposure to traumatic events worldwide are some of the biggest contributors to empathy fatigue today. Those already taking care of others often have the added weight of these factors contributing to their stress and anxiety, making it increasingly difficult to care for themselves and others.
What professions are most likely to experience empathy fatigue?
The professions most susceptible to empathy fatigue include healthcare workers, caregivers, social workers, counselors, therapists, teachers, clergy, and first responders. These professions are often emotionally demanding and require individuals to provide care and support to those in need. Without proper boundaries and self-care, these roles can be emotionally taxing and lead to feelings of exhaustion and burnout.
- Healthcare workers may experience empathy fatigue due to the high level of stress they share related to patient care, long hours, and the demanding situations they encounter.
- Social workers, counselors, and therapists may experience empathy fatigue due to the often intense emotional labor they must put into their work when dealing with clients.
- Teachers, clergy, and first responders may experience empathy fatigue due to their challenging situations and the emotional toll of offering aid and support to those in need.
Is empathy bad?
While some research might suggest that empathy is not a helpful emotion, far more research indicates that empathy is essential for human connection and understanding. Empathy is “bad” when it resembles care without boundaries. However, research suggests empathy without boundaries is not empathy at all.
What makes empathy good?
Empathy is a valuable skill that allows us to understand other perspectives better and make more informed decisions. It helps us to be more compassionate and understanding of others’ difficulties instead of judging them.
Empathy is a crucial component of building personal and professional relationships. It allows us to understand better what someone is going through and how they feel, which can help us to be more patient and understanding. Empathy is essential for building relationships and understanding the world around us.
Practical Advice for Empathy Fatigue Takeaways
To summarize, take note of this practical advice to overcome empathy fatigue:
- Get perspective. Ask questions that help you honor someone’s story.
- Refrain from comparison. Mentally put your internal biases on a shelf.
- Feel your emotions. Give yourself permission and a safe space to feel rather than become numb.
- Practice mindfulness. Practice self-awareness techniques to show up for yourself.
- Set boundaries. Remember to feel with, not for, someone.
- Take care of your basic needs. Put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping someone else,
- Take a social media break. Consider a digital detox.
- Practice deep self-care. Engage in an activity that relaxes or brings you joy.
- Prioritize your mental health. Pay attention to your thought patterns and practice gratitude.
- Take a break. Schedule breaks on your calendar.
- Get out of your element. Plan a trip to somewhere new or an activity you’ve never tried.
- Connect with others. Put a date on the calendar to spend time with a trusted friend.
- Talk to a therapist. Feeling symptoms of empathy fatigue? It might be time to seek professional help as well.
Your path toward emotional and mental health is a great way to become the best version of yourself. If you’re looking for additional ways to grow, check out our article on 10 Life-changing Steps to Become the Best Version of Yourself.