5 Tips for Combating Empathy Burnout | Guest Post by Mia Barnes

Empathy burnout — also referred to as compassion fatigue — is the exhaustion that a person can feel when they devote excessive time and energy to caring for others. There are a lot of mixed emotions surrounding empathy burnout, from guilt to hopelessness. While they may be hard to recognize, those feelings are natural and human, and they don’t make anyone a bad person.

Certain levels of empathy burnout are normal. However, if it routinely drags you down, I’ve found that there are ways to care for your emotional health so you can avoid it. My fiancé and I both struggle with mental illnesses, and it can make it even harder to really be able to show up for someone else when you’re fighting demons of your own. Here are a few strategies I use to keep myself grounded and to be able to be present in the lives of those I care about.

1. Practice Self Care All the Time — Not Just When You’re Already Down

Performing self-care is a great practice that helps me get back on my feet when I feel particularly burnt out or spent. However, self-care doesn’t have to wait until it’s too late. It isn’t just a saving grace for those who are already experiencing empathy burnout. It’s also a preemptive practice that can keep us from enduring that exhaustion in the first place. Taking time for mindfulness, journaling, doing activities that I enjoy or engaging in other kinds of healthy practices recharge my social battery and enable me to care for myself. These hobbies help me feel full and energized, so I can show up for those who I care about.

2. Value Your Alone Time

For a while, one of the contributing factors of my experiences with compassion fatigue and empathy burnout was the feeling that I needed to be available all the time. I’m a caretaker at heart, but I eventually felt that I didn’t have time or energy to spend on myself anymore. Even though it can be hard to step away and focus on me, I’ve found that quieting my mind and allowing myself to be with my own thoughts is crucial in decompressing. It helps me remember that I can — and should — make myself a priority in my emotional life.

3. Build a Reliable Support System

Caring for someone else has at times left me feeling like I am the main caretaker in my life. Often, caring for people regularly and well — especially if it’s a part of your profession — can make others in your life think it’s always okay to ask you to take on their needs. It can become a cycle in which people know you’re good at offering care, so they expect it from you all the time. Whether emotional fatigue comes from the people in my life or just my day-to-day routine, one of the most important things I’ve learned to do is seek out specific people and situations that make me feel cared for and supported. My fiancé has always been a strong support system even when he’s feeling down himself — we have both spent a lot of time learning about how to support someone else when you have your own mental illness to deal with.

I also have a few select and special friendships where we mutually strengthen one another. Mentorships or counseling relationships can be great examples of this, too.

If you’re someone’s primary “care taker” more often than not, you deserve to have people around to care for you, too.

4. Set Boundaries

In most areas of life, boundaries are important, but especially when a situation calls for us to offer care and support to others regularly. These limits have been an essential part of reminding myself that I am still my own person and I don’t simply exist to serve others — even if I love that person and want to support them. Part of loving someone is not wanting them to be co-dependent on me — or anyone, for that matter — which makes boundaries a useful tool.

Maybe your boundaries take the form of setting specific hours for yourself or creating clear standards about what you are and aren’t willing to do for someone. No matter what yours look like, merely the act of establishing them can relieve tension and fatigue. Over time, your needs and limitations may change as you learn more about yourself and your capabilities. That means you’re growing and learning how to care for yourself.

5. Only Take on What You Know You Can

Similar to setting boundaries, when I began carefully considering the responsibilities I took on, my compassion actually amplified. Saying no can be difficult. However, being intentional about when I say yes and knowing how much I can support others has given me more energy and helped me better care for loved ones.

This also means you should ask for help while caring for loved ones whenever necessary. If you find yourself in a situation you’re not sure you can handle on your own, it can be helpful to reach out to others who can help you take on the load. This phenomenon often happens when caring for someone with a complex illness or traumas you aren’t familiar with. Empathy burnout is difficult to deal with, especially because we want to be there and be the best support we can for those we love. But in doing that, taking care of ourselves is crucial.