Avoiding Emotional Burnout: Why Everyone’s Got Empathy All Wrong

So, here’s the thing: I completely hate being told what to do.

Like when I was in high school, and they told me I had to have a hall pass to go to the bathroom, and I was all like, “Uh, exCUSE me?” (In snotty teenager tone, por supuesto.)

And because I would take no shit, I moved to Sweden where I could leave school in the middle of the day and walk to town to get pizza and no one would chase me down and tell me I had to stay to attend the inane pep assembly. Hallelujah, freedom!

I chaff at things that bind or restrict, be them my own internal limitations (You say I can’t tame a wild horse? Watch me) or external constructs. Like hall passes. Which I clearly still resent.

So when all these folks on the interwebs start waxing poetic about how we all need to work on our empathy skills, I squirm. Okay, okay, so I shout belligerently at my computer/television/cat.

Because, really? Aren’t we all pretty much sizzled to a crisp with everything on our plates right now? And with a political climate stretched tighter than those skinny jeans you bought before deciding ice cream was an essential food group again, do we really all need to be feeling MORE?

Empathy is a super hot and trendy topic now in light of all the oppression warriors rising to the surface (due credit: they’ve been there all along, culture just made them visible finally). We’re supposed to have empathy for all the marginalized communities around the world who are suffering as a result of systematized oppression.

Egads.

This is a problem. You know why it’s a problem? Because empathy is literally the act of feeling someone else’s pain. When you feel empathy for someone, you’re actually suffering alongside the person, because fMRI scans show that the process of empathy involves simulating another person’s feelings inside your own brain.

Okay, so you’ve got all these marginalized people. They’re freaking terrified. They’re getting bombed and shelled (no, that’s not a metaphor) and bullied and threatened and just straight up judged, held back, pinned down and kept out.

And you wanna go on feelin’ their pain. So now, instead of being in a position to help the person, you’re lying in the gutter alongside them slashed open with gaping wounds.

Lovely.

And while I’m using an extreme example here (because holy hell have you seen the state of oppression on our planet today?), it doesn’t have to be taken to extremity.

Empathy can just be recognizing that your coworker is having a rough week because her cat died. It can be feeling a friend’s strained relationship stress. It can be absorbing all the negative vibes emitting from a freeway at rush hour.

I declare that empathy isn’t helping us at all; it’s leaving us exhausted, frustrated and, yes, burned out. Fried to a carcinogenic carbon-like substance, actually. And probably emitting the acrid odor of scorched hair.

What I’m not saying is that we should ignore others’ pain. God no. Today, perhaps more than any other moment in my lifetime (which is admittedly shorter than many, but longer than some), it’s more important than ever to acknowledge pain and oppression.

And to cultivate emotional intelligence.

And to notice when people are wounded. Because we’re hurting, folks. We’re hurting bad.

But empathy is killing us slowly. Death by a thousand paper cuts, and all that.

What do we use in its place? I vote for compassion, which is empathy’s often confused but far more sophisticated cousin.

Compassion allows you to recognize another’s pain without getting mired in it. This is important for two reasons.

The first is that you are only one person. You cannot possibly contain all the world’s pain within your single body. Seriously. Stop trying. You’re going to explode.

And second, when you’re not actually IN suffering, you’re in a position to do something ABOUT it.

Many years ago, I was super broke. I know, I know. We’re not talking epic level shit here like war and famine and genocide. But at the time, I was a stress case. Looking back, there were a zillion things I could have done that would have been better than the things I was doing.

But in the moment, I was suffering. Every morning I woke up feeling like I swallowed a handful of razor blades that were slicing up my intestines from the inside out. My first thought each day revolved around trying to figure out how to pay the next bill.

Also, beating myself up for being such a failure/disappointment/loser.

I was in no position to be a help to anyone. I think about that time in my life a lot. I was completely disempowered — largely due to my own mindset, of course. But regardless of the cause, I had no resources to offer, emotional, financial or otherwise.

If we’re all trying to be so empathetic, we’re putting ourselves right into this disempowered, unresourced place. And anyone who’s ever played Settlers of Catan knows how vital resources are to winning the game.

So, back to compassion, let’s talk about what that actually looks like. On a purely neurological level, it looks like nurturing and caring versus feeling the pain (how refreshing!).

The brains of Buddhist monks — experts in compassionate meditation — showed activity in the centers related to caring and nurturing when scanned with fMRI, so we know what’s happening biologically.

But in real-life practice, this looks like saying, “I see that you’re hurting, and I see what’s needed to make this better.” It could be immediate, like putting a bandaid on a scratch. It could be bigger, like interrupting systemic oppression that perpetuates cycles of poverty and racism.

But it’s NOT crawling in the hole with the person in pain.