Studies Show Empaths Can Experience Dangerous Burnout And Compassion Fatigue

Being an empath certainly has its rewards, but if you’re not careful with how you use your energy, you could suffer from compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is essentially a feeling of exhaustion that comes from over-empathizing. The tragic result of such a burnout is something every empath fears- a lack of empathy.


Compassion fatigue is a type of stress that involves “physical and emotional depletion” as a result of “caring for someone in significant emotional or physical distress.” People experiencing compassion fatigue usually display a lack of empathy or indifference toward the person they’re caring for. Sound familiar? Other symptoms include headaches, digestive problems, feeling overwhelmed and irritability.


It’s normal to feel emotionally overburdened when you take on a “helping role.” And in most cases, a simple way to alleviate this is by taking a step back and making sure you’re taking care of yourself first. Trying to help a friend through a tough situation not only impacts you because you care about your friend and want to help lessen their struggle, but also because not knowing how to help to take away their pain can feel overwhelming. That said, if you continue to feel anxious, exhausted and unusually detached from the people around you, then you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.


Research from Malarden University states, “Feeling the emotions of others in distress may lead to negative consequences. Feeling others’ negative emotions led to activation in brain regions associated with experiencing pain. High levels of emotional empathy may be associated with higher risk for burnout.”


“Previous research identified empathy as one of the main causes of compassion fatigue (Figley, 2002Figley, C. R. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(11), 14331441.[Crossref][PubMed][Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]), which poses a dilemma for professionals in fields in which empathy is necessary (Irving & Dickson).”


If you’re wondering if you may be suffering from compassion fatigue, here are 5 warning signs:


1. APATHY: You Literally Can’t Anymore


It can be hard to hear a friend talk about a problem and (from your perspective) feel powerless to help them. If you find yourself feeling apathetic toward a person you know is in an unhealthy relationship, then this may be the first sign of fatigue. Stepping away from the situation (at least for a little) and asking for help from a trusted friend or counselor may be the best thing for you at this time. Remember, your friend is likely picking up on your frustration, which serves no one and may compound any feelings of isolation they are experiencing.


2. ANGER: You’re Angry at the Person Experiencing Abuse


This one can be extra tough because chances are you don’t want to be angry at the person experiencing abuse – REMEMBER it is NOT their fault – but if you’re feeling any sort of animosity toward your friend, this can cause a lot of internal conflicts. Sometimes, it’s easier to get angry at your friend instead of the root of the problem; their partner who is doing unhealthy or abusive things to them. Just keep in mind that they are going through a lot with the relationship. It’s ok to set personal boundaries. And if your anger persists, there’s no need to suffer in silence. Speak with a counselor to help you work through your feelings.

3. ISOLATION: You’re Avoiding People

If you find that you are not just avoiding the person in an unhealthy relationship, but also everyone in your life, then you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. And we don’t mean wanting to relax and watch Netflix alone on a Saturday night. What makes compassion fatigue different is the feeling of being overwhelmed to the point where you have a hard time connecting with others or lack the desire to do anything beyond binge watching Gilmore Girls.

4. NEGATIVITY: You’ve Become a Pessimist

It’s hard to try to help a person and feel like nothing you do is making the situation better. Compassion fatigue can amplify this feeling, making it difficult to be optimistic about anything. If you’re a person who is normally optimistic about life, yet find yourself having a negative comeback for everything– pay attention. A significant negative change in your normal behavior can be a sign of compassion fatigue.

5. FATIGUE: You’re Tired All. The. Time.

Personally, I don’t remember a time in my life when I wasn’t tired. But when you’re experiencing compassion fatigue, the exhaustion is overwhelming. It’s why you isolate yourself, it’s why you’ve stopped working out, and it’s why you literally can’t anymore.

What to do if you recognize these signs:

Often times compassion fatigue is a result of either forgetting to check-in with yourself or knowing how you’re feeling, but not being open or honest about it. Sometimes it just feels easier to put other people’s needs before your own. However, we can’t actually be there for others if we aren’t there for ourselves first.

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