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

Empathy Fatigue

The ability to help others is something we should all embrace, but what happens when it gets too much? That’s when empathy fatigue can set in.

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, 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, what 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, and that 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, and in many ways, to be able to give advice to help them. Even if you don’t give advice, you say words which are comforting. A person with a high empathy level is someone who can make others feel better.

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 takes 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.

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.

What is empathy fatigue?

Those explanations bring us onto 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. For a person with empathy, they can easily suffer from empathy fatigue if they try to take on too much. It is possible to shield yourself from the 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. [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, and you know if you try and explain that to your friend, they may become upset or misunderstand.

In addition, the things your friend is telling you is 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.

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 of hearing the same thing all the time? How can you not become a little fed up of 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.

What should you do?

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. 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, and 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.

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 guilt 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 well 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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