How to Deal with Empathy Fatigue

Posted on June 16, 2019 by Nate Regier / 2 comments
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Empathy fatigue is a phrase coined by Mark Stebnicki, a professor in the Department of Addictions and Rehabilitation at East Carolina University. He explains that, “empathy fatigue results from a state of psychological, emotional, mental, physical, spiritual and occupational exhaustion that occurs as the counselors’ own wounds are continually revisited by their clients’ life stories of chronic illness, disability, trauma, grief and loss.”

What Is Empathy Fatigue?

Empathy fatigue is especially common in high-touch professions where empathy, care, concern, and emotional support are job duties. Although first recognized in the counseling field, empathy fatigue is gaining more recognition in corporate settings, especially in companies promoting a customer-centric and people-focused culture.

Losing our selves. Losing our soul.

Symptoms of Empathy fatigue are described in Lynne Shallcross’ article, “Who’s taking care of Superman.”

  • Feelings of powerlessness or helplessness
  • Skepticism
  • Irritability
  • Loss of meaning, purpose and hope
  • Lowered concentration
  • Impatience
  • Somatic complaints
  • Low morale or motivation
  • Anger
  • Guilt
  • Anxiety

How did we get here?

Empathy fatigue is caused by the relentless pursuit to serve the customer coupled with a distorted understanding of compassion.

On the way to perfecting our customer-first strategy we’ve forgotten that the customer is an agent in the equation. We have accepted that we are responsible for making everything better, so we listen more, care more, empathize more, and suffer more.; so that they will have a pleasant experience, stay engaged, and buy more.

Most people believe that compassion is synonymous with empathy, altruism and kindness. That’s wrong. 

How to deal with empathy fatigue?

So, how de we deal with empathy fatigue? The obvious answer is self-care. It’s a good step, but it’s not the full solution. The solution is to practice compassion in its fullest sense. Compassion means “to struggle with,” not “to struggle instead of.” Here’s how compassion can help you solve empathy fatigue. 

Keep caring and giving

Don’t shut down your heart. People are hard-wired to care about each other. And, don’t forget to also protect your heart. Bleeding-hearts don’t last very long.

Engage others in the process

Stop solving problems for people. Get them involved to take ownership over the solution. Customers are much more loyal and engaged when they take an active role in the solution. When you are doing all the emotional (and physical) work, you are undermining their capability and dignity and creating dependence.

Set and enforce boundaries

Protect your soul by knowing your boundaries and investing in you. Without it, your tank will always be on empty. What keeps you healthy and balanced? Do it. What gives you joy? Do it. Recognize when saying “yes” means you are saying no to what keeps you healthy. You are worth as much as the person you are trying to help. When you are fatigued you aren’t helpful.

Solving the problem of how to deal with empathy fatigue requires difficult conversations with yourself and with others. It’s not easy, and we have a solution.

Copyright Next Element Consulting, LLC 2019

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Photo of Jim Flickinger
Jim Flickinger
Posted on July 3, 2019

Great parallel with taking care of aging parents and the repetition of memories/stories time and time again. Taking care of oneself is so vital.

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Nate Regier
Posted on July 3, 2019

So true Jim. Thanks for sharing.

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Photo of Adele
Posted on July 3, 2019

Thankyou for sharing such relatable information in this article. In Nusring, we are continually called to give of ourselves for others.

Photo of Nate Regier
Nate Regier
Posted on July 12, 2019

So true, Adele. Thanks for your comment.

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