How to cope with "compassion fatigue"
Are you feeling overwhelmed, numb, powerless, or on edge in response to the unrelenting episodes of senseless violence, tragedy, and injustice? Some people are able to move through intense emotions and continue on with their lives without difficulty. Others, however, carry the intensity with them, often unconsciously, where it can have deep and destabilizing effects on their health and well-being. If that feels like you, I am writing to share mindsets and practices that might help you cope with and ultimately shift that tendency.
The feeling of emotional burnout is often called "compassion fatigue," but it's more accurately termed "empathic distress." I think it's a useful and important distinction to make because compassion does not lead to fatigue, it is energizing, healing, and transformative. Too much empathizing, on the other hand, can be draining and overwhelming.
As I understand these concepts, empathy is feeling what other people are feeling. It's not the same as sympathy, which is feeling sorry for someone who is suffering; empathy means sharing the suffering, feeling the feelings. While it's a beautiful quality in many ways and can create deep and sensitive connections with others, it presents two real challenges. First, it takes a toll if you're not careful. Very sensitive people, sometimes called "empaths," can get overwhelmed with painful emotions that aren't theirs, making it even more difficult to manage or even identify their own emotions let alone function in a complicated world. That's the "distress." Second, empathy is not very helpful for the person suffering. While misery may love company, joining someone in their suffering does not alleviate it.
Feeling compassion is very different (research shows that it involves different areas of the brain). Having compassion for someone means being a loving witness to their suffering -- there's no trying to join, judge, or fix the experience. Whereas having empathy is like encountering a person who is stuck in a ditch and jumping in with them, having compassion is like standing on the side of the ditch and being available to help from a place of clarity and stability.
And being held in compassion is a beautiful feeling -- you feel seen, supported, empowered. Sympathy and empathy don't offer that.
If you're used to taking on other people's emotions, holding compassion -- being present as a loving witness -- might take some practice. It requires intention and some detachment. Fortunately the more you practice compassion, the stronger you get, and with that strength you can find resolve and inspiration to act and make the changes we all need. As the Dalai Lama memorably said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.”
Practicing a compassion meditation is a great way to experience its healing qualities and also to have a place to put your deep love and caring. I love and highly recommend this compassion meditation. Give it a try and let me know how it goes!
Here are a few additional practices and strategies for managing your beautiful sensitivity.
First, I invite you to try an intuitive self-assessment. Ask yourself, How much of this pain-anxiety-fear-grief is mine? Allow a number to come to mind. That's the percentage. (I wrote more about this practice here.) In my experience, empaths are often carrying a very high percentage of emotional "debris" that isn't theirs. Sometimes just having that awareness -- this isn't all mine -- can release some of the weight.
Some ways to clear the energy include:
Energy Hygiene awareness Prioritize fresh air, time out in nature (around trees and/or running water when possible), healthy food and water, and vigorous, intentional breath and movement practices like Shaking the Bones. Work on grounding. If you work in an emotion-intense environment this is especially important. Epsom salt baths and foot soaks are also great for clearing.
Side sweeps (the solar plexus is often an area that can get congestion with emotional debris): With both hands resting on the belly, fingers touching by the navel, press in gently and pull your hands out to the sides like you're smoothing out your shirt. Continue this motion, sweeping horizontally out to the sides with your palms, down to the hips and up to the ribs. Then do the same thing on the back, opening up the center and sweeping out to the sides. Then take a moment to notice the spaciousness and vibrancy that results!
Fill yourself up with yourself visualization practice to create boundaries from the inside.