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Empathy Fatigue: The Guilt-Free Guide to Recognize & Overcome It

Empathy fatigue is something most of us don’t want to admit to, but it happens when all you do is help others and never have time for yourself. 

what is empathy fatigue

We’re told from a very young age that if we can help someone in pain or in need, we should do it. When we see a friend struggling with an emotional problem, we want them to talk to us. Of course, we want to listen and help them feel better. This is a natural part of life and something we should be proud of. The problem is, what if you become everyone’s confidant? If you’re so good at listening and giving advice that everyone comes to you? Well, welcome to the world of empathy fatigue.

Before we go too deep, do you think that’s a good situation or a bad one?

You can look at it from both sides. Firstly, it’s great people trust you and feel you can help. That should make you feel good.

Secondly, however, there is only so much empathy you can show and give before you start to feel like your own needs aren’t being met. Then, you’re basically an emotional doormat for everyone who has a problem.

It’s such a fine line! [Read: Why being an empath in a relationship is a blessing and a curse]

What exactly is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to listen and understand someone’s emotions and feelings from the other person’s perspective.

In many ways, it’s also about being able to give advice to help them. Even if you don’t give advice, you say words that are comforting. A person with a high empathy level is someone who can make others feel better because everyone feel totally understood by them.

Empath and a person with empathy – Is it the same?

There is a slight difference between being an empath, and being a person with empathy, however.

An empath is someone who can pick up on the feelings of another person and take those feelings on as their own. For example, if someone is feeling sad, an empath may spend a short amount of time around that person and then suddenly start to feel sad themselves, when they have no real reason to. [Read: 12 strong signs of an empath – Do you feel deeper than others?]

On the other hand, a person with empathy has the ability to listen and understand emotions, but they don’t actually feel them as their own. They are able to put themselves in the person’s shoes mentally, but not spiritually. They may feel sympathy for the person and really be able to understand the deeper reasons and emotions below the surface.

But, unlike an empath, there is no transfer of emotions going on.

So you’re not necessarily an empath if you have empathy?

Not necessarily, no. A good example of someone who has empathy is a professional counselor. That person is able to listen to and understand the feelings of another person, and able to help them via the advice they give. This is more than mere listening, it is really having a greater understanding of how they feel and why. [Read: Empaths and relationships – How to handle them and find happiness]

An empath on the other hand is very likely to feel extremely overwhelmed being around people for a long period of time. The constant back and forth of different emotions whilst simply waiting for the bus can cause that person to need to lay down in a darkened room and center themselves.

So, empathy is about being able to put yourself in the shoes of others and understand what they’re feeling and going through. You probably pick up on their body language without realizing it. That helps you to understand them better. You might also be able to hear their non-verbal cues subconsciously.

All of this is done instantaneously and it helps you to help others.

Does everyone have empathy?

Yes and no. Narcissists are known to have no empathy. That’s part of their problem – they have Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or NPD, and one of the traits of that is an inability to show or feel empathy. However, even if you’re not a narcissist, it could be that you have a low level of empathy. Yet, you still have it.

Some people have a huge amount of empathy. That’s when empathy fatigue can set in, if it’s not managed carefully.

At the end of the day, empathy is a wonderful thing. But, you need to balance things carefully. If you’re always giving to everyone else, you’re going to end up burned out. There has to be a balance. [Read: Narcissist and empath – Why they’re a match made in dating hell]

What is empathy fatigue?

Those explanations bring us to the main point of this feature – empathy fatigue.

An empath feels empathy fatigue practically on a constant basis, but it is a slightly different type of deal. A person with empathy can easily suffer from empathy fatigue if they try to take on too much. It is possible to shield yourself from fatigue, but it can be difficult to say ‘no’ to someone when they ask to sit and talk to you.

This is why people who have actually developed empathy fatigue never really find they feel better – they fail to put themselves first. Perhaps they feel guilty for not helping someone right at that moment.

But, it’s perfectly fine to put yourself first occasionally. In fact, it’s necessary! [Read: Do you feel emotionally drained? 15 reasons and cures that work]

Empathy fatigue and how all of us experience it

Let’s give an example to make this clearer.

A close friend has just split up with their partner. They’re devastated because they were cheated on, they’d been together for years, and they shared a home. Now your friend is left single and alone, they’re trying to process everything and really struggling with it. They turn to you for help and advice and you gladly listen to them for the first few times. After a while, you start to feel a little down yourself, you’re constantly going over and over the same thing all the time and your friend is calling you on a regular basis to talk things over.

At first, you feel bad for the way you feel. You want to be there for your friend, but you have little time to relax and spend time with your own partner. You know if you try and explain that to your friend, they may become upset or misunderstand you.

In addition, the things your friend is telling you are starting to make you relive some upsetting events in your past, things which you thought you had dealt with and put to bed. All in all, you feel exhausted, but you’re not sure how to handle the situation.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is classic empathy fatigue.

[Read: How to help a friend through a breakup with minimal drama]

Signs you’re struggling with empathy fatigue

Now you know what empathy fatigue looks like, check out these signs and see if it’s something you might be struggling with too.

1. You feel exhausted

You haven’t been exercising more or doing anything any differently, but you feel tired.

In addition, it’s not a physical kind of tired, it’s a mental and emotional kind of tired. The reason? You’re taking on too much and struggling to process it all. [Read: What to do when you’re emotionally exhausted and just can’t deal]

2. You know what your friend will say before they say it

It may not be your friend, it may be someone else, but we’ll use that as an example again. When they call you, you basically know what they’re going to say. You’ve heard it so many times before.

3. You’re starting to feel annoyed

It’s possible that you’re starting to feel a little angry or annoyed at this person who is demanding so much of you.

You want to shout at them and tell them to stop going over and over the same thing. But, you know that would be misunderstood and cause a bigger problem. So, you keep all of that inside and it just adds to your exhaustion.

4. But you also feel guilty

You feel guilty for being annoyed. In addition, you feel guilty because you want some time for yourself and you feel like you shouldn’t.

This is a classic situation for someone with a lot of empathy for others. [Read: How to get rid of false guilt and drop the burden others put on you]

5. You’re not very good at saying “no”

Do you always say “yes” even when you don’t want to? How does that make you feel? Annoyed, guilty, and tired probably.

When you’re struggling with empathy fatigue and you keep saying “yes” to those who demand your time constantly, it’s a slippery slope.

6. When you try to give yourself some time, you can’t relax

If you have empathy fatigue, you’ll still struggle to turn off your phone or focus on yourself. You know you should, and you really want to, but your guilt is making you feel like you shouldn’t. [Read: 14 really quick stress busters to recharge your mind]

It’s normal to feel this way

When a person is going through a hard time and they find someone they can talk to, they tend to stick to that person like glue.

They’ve finally found someone who understands them and they see a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.

For the person doing the listening, they feel good that they’re helping someone, but then it suddenly starts to become so regular that they begin feeling guilty about the growing resentment that is bubbling below the surface. [Read: 12 quick ways to stop negative people from sapping your energy]

What you first need to realize is that what you’re feeling is 100% normal. How can you not become tired and exhausted from hearing the same thing all the time? How can you not become a little fed up with saying the same thing over and over again?

Yes, you feel guilty for thinking it, but you feel guilty because you’re a good person. Do not beat yourself up.

How can you overcome empathy fatigue?

This is going to sound brutal, but if you want to successfully get over your empathy fatigue and feel better in yourself, you need to take time for number one, i.e. you.

Turn off your phone, just for a day. The world is not going to stop turning and nothing is going to blow up. In those 24 hours, do things that you enjoy, and do them alone or with people who bring you joy and lift you up.

Do not spend that day with the person who you have been helping. You need to recharge your own batteries and rest your soul for a short while. [Read: Too empathetic? How to detach yourself and find a better life]

Practice a little self-love. Have a hot bath, read a book, go for a walk, go to the gym if you like it, eat your favorite foods, call a friend you always have a laugh with, basically do the things which your soul is crying out for and see how good it makes you feel.

Of course, when you turn your phone back on, you’re probably going to have missed calls. That’s fine. You deserve a life too. Remember, you were not put on this planet to be at someone’s beck and call for advice. You are not an agony aunt!

Sounds harsh? Possibly so, but fair. [Read: How to help someone up when they’re down and depressed]

Help yourself first if you want to help others

In order to help other people, you need to also help yourself. Of course, your friend is not in the wrong for leaning on you in times of need. But, having 24 hours to yourself doesn’t mean you’re not going to listen to her again; you probably will the very next day.

What those 24 hours do however is give you a break, and allow you to get back to you. That is something we all need from time to time, and when you’re suffering from empathy fatigue, it is a vital part of the recharging process. [Read: How to take care of yourself emotionally and avoid falling apart]

Empathy fatigue can be explained in a very easy way – when you’re tired from a long day at work, you lay down on the sofa and relax. Do you feel guilty about that? No.

So why are you feeling guilty for looking after yourself when you’re suffering from empathy fatigue and your emotions are tired? Don’t feel guilty for occasionally looking after number one.

[Read: The art of not giving a shit – 15 lessons to cure your fatigue]

You may have your best intentions at heart when you help someone emotionally. But when you feel empathy fatigue setting in, disconnect and find your happy place. You can’t help someone who’s in a deep hole when you slip into it yourself.

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Nicky Curtis
Nicky Curtis
Having stumbled from one relationship drama to another throughout her 20s, Nicky is now somewhat of a guru in the crazy world of life and love. Telling it how i...
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