When Empathy becomes Exhausting: Three Ways to Prevent Burnout from Empathy

Sitting with someone else’s pain is uncomfortable. Uncertainty about how to manage the emotions attached to absorbing another’s pain is scary.   Empathy can be perceived as the bridge between the sender’s pain and the receiver’s emotions.   Being empathetic is revered as a strength and a skill that can be developed overtime.  While it is important to have empathy, it is equally important to learn to tolerate the emotions of others to help you deal more effectively with their struggles.  Therapists, social workers, case managers and other health care professionals are regularly exposed to pain, suffering, trauma and hopelessness.  We see people at their best and worst.  We have the privilege of being trusted with joys, pains, hopes, losses and successes.   The ability to express empathy for someone experiencing pain, loss or suffering is a key quality needed to be an effective helping professional.  Mindless empathy occurs when we over-identify with someone else’s pain and lose the ability to self-regulate.  This can result in exhaustion or compassion fatigue


The following “in the moment” tips can help prevent burnout from empathy:


Get Centered: Centering means to calm your mind, your emotions and breathing so you can feel more going on around and inside of you.  It is a combination of focused awareness and relaxation.  Practice mindfulness to calm your mind and emotions.  Focus on being an observer of your thoughts and emotions, rather than reacting.  Treat these thoughts and emotions as clouds floating by.  Which draw you in and which make you want to run away?


Know Your Triggers: “Triggers are very personal and different things trigger different people.  We may not have control over our environment, but we do have control over our response to the environment.  Pay attention to people, places and things that increase your anxiety.  Common responses include but are not limited to increased heart rate, heavy breathing, body tension, change in body temperature, gastrointestinal issues or headache.  Click here to download your stress log to track your daily stress levels.


Move from Unconscious Empathy to Conscious Choice:  You can still be a supportive friend, family member, helping professional or colleague without absorbing their emotions and energy.  Making the shift from mindless empathy to mindful empathy can include 4 reflection questions:

What am I responsible for?

What are my clients or loved ones responsible for?

What is in my control?

What is out of my control?



Remember, you can express empathy without feeling exhausted.


We want to hear from you.

What signs do you notice physically, mentally or emotionally that you may be mindlessly empathizing?

What strategies have you used to ensure you are not burning out from mindlessly empathizing?


For more information on conscious empathy, compassion fatigue and burnout; click here to download your free copy of Overcoming Compassion Fatigue: When Helping Hurts.


To Your Self-Care,



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