At our core, most people are good, caring individuals. We want what is best for those around us, for those lives filled with success, and hoping never to see anyone suffer. But when we witness it, we will do anything we can to help that person escape it. We have empathy for these individuals, and compassion can be a robust emotional response. It can transform how we feel to match that of the person we are concerned for the most. If they feel joy, we can allow ourselves to feel it too. If they are sullen, we may match their gloom.
Being empathetic can feel as if we are doing good, that we are helping someone that is struggling by being there for them and feeling what they think. But for some, repeatedly matching these intense emotions may lead to a result they never suspected.
Traditionally, empathy is a way for people to demonstrate care for one another, and in the world that we all live in today, we need compassion more than ever. This world that we call home has changed over the last few decades, becoming more complicated and, in turn, challenging to live a simple life filled with happiness. Instead, there are now more pressures and standards put on us to succeed than ever before. We have been overtaken by social media and put under a judgmental social microscope every day of our lives. As a result, people are struggling; they face various challenges, including addiction and mental health issues. These individuals deserve our empathy. And for better or worse, in a lot of cases, they are getting it.
The most common providers of empathy are parents and caregivers. Rightfully so, they want what is best for their patients or their children. When they witness them struggling, an instinctual need to match their emotions is not to feel like they face these battles alone. There is a belief that by empathizing with them, they are assisting them in getting through this rough patch they are facing. But in doing so, by matching these emotions, day in and day out, one may walk away exhausted, zapped of all of their energy and feelings. And over time, doing this repeatedly, they are putting themselves at risk of suffering from empathy burnout.
Empathy burnout results from a person expending too much emotional, mental, and physical energy while caring for someone else, only to then feel exhausted themselves. During this experience, these individuals tend to suddenly withdraw their attention, becoming dispirited toward the ones they care so much about the most. This risk of burnout is one reason why Yale psychologist Paul Bloom is not a fan of empathy. Bloom believes that empathy is the cause of more damage than improvement and that what we need in our lives is more compassion.
Everyone defines and thinks of empathy differently. In Bloom’s book Against Empathy, he refers to empathy as “feeling the feelings of other people.” and argues that “that’s different from compassion. Compassion means I give your concern weight, and I value it. I care about you, but I don’t necessarily pick up your feelings.” And although this seems to be a fine line between the two, the results’ difference can be staggering. Following Bloom’s rationale, feeling empathetic can suck you in and cause burnout, where compassion allows you to sympathize with someone but walk away unscathed. But whether it is empathy or compassion, while caring for someone struggling with mental health issues or addiction, the best course of action is to set boundaries for yourself. These boundaries will allow you to maintain the endurance necessary to care for these individuals without risking burnout.
One of the most critical steps in avoiding burnout is giving yourself your own time to recharge. Whether you are a caregiver or a parent, it’s about setting a time for yourself when you walk away, go home, spend time with friends and family, and recharge. Your body and mind need self-care if you are to sustain any level of emotional care.
You Don’t Have Every Answer
It is natural to want to “fix” the problem. To have an answer for all of the issues that someone is facing in their life. But you don’t have all the answers, and that’s okay. If you put the burden on yourself of having every solution to every problem that arises, you will burn out quickly. Be confident that you will help where you can, but when you don’t know how, that’s okay. Someone else can step in with those answers.
Don’t Take It Personally
When we care deeply for someone who is struggling, it is easy to take it personally. If you are a parent, you may wonder if what they are going through is your fault. If you are a caregiver, you may find yourself frustrated that you can’t fix them faster. That is quite the burden to put on yourself, and the weight of it will crush you. Understand that what is happening is not your fault, but you are doing good by you being there.
There is a natural tendency to fear that setting boundaries for showing empathy or compassion may seem selfish, but it’s quite the opposite in actuality. In wanting people to heal, they have to be able to do it on their own. If they are always relying on someone to do the healing for themselves, their struggles will continue. So be there for them where and when you can, supporting their recovery and growth, but allowing yourself to walk away and take a mental and physical break. Recovery is a marathon that people cannot achieve in one day.
Being a parent, friend, family member, or caregiver of someone suffering from addiction or a mental health disease can be emotionally exhausting. Sticking by their side every day, empathizing, trying to be clear that you feel the pain and anguish that they are working to overcome can overtake your own life. Although it is essential in these situations to set boundaries to protect your mental health, sometimes boundaries are not enough, and you need the help of a professional. If you find that you or someone you know is struggling with empathy burnout, addiction, or any form of mental health issues, Mission Harbor is here for you. Mission Harbor’s world-class staff and treatment facilities are open and ready to help, prepared with flexible treatment plans for men and women of all ages.