Take a minute or two to watch this video. Notice how the main character’s body becomes darker each time he helps someone, as though the pain and concerns are being transferred to him. His posture becomes heavier, his head looks downward, he appears to lack energy. It isn’t until the end when he spends time with his dog, that his energy begins to replenish and the darkness disappears.
This video caught my attention because it gives a strong visual representation of empathy, and what happens when a person over-empathises or is overwhelmed by the emotional states and experiences of others.
Empathy can be described as the experience of understanding another person’s thoughts, feelings, and condition from his or her point of view, rather than from one’s own. People can experience empathy in many aspects of their lives, and there are many professions where empathy plays a significant part in their work, for example, helping roles such as counselling, social work, teaching, nursing, health care etc.
I work closely with students and staff, so it is important for me to build meaningful relationships with others. As a natural empath, I thrive when I am able to understand what someone is going through, and even better if I can positively assist them to grow and develop. I sense people’s feelings quickly and often use my intuition to tend to their needs. As such, I value empathy as a unique ‘super power’.
But like any character with a super power, there is also a cost; in times of change or disharmony, or when the demands become too great, the empath becomes overwhelmed, tired, exhausted.
These adverse effects are clearly articulated by Psychology Today:
With empathy, you will feel their stress, anxiety, and anger in your body. You might feel their pain emotionally and physically. If you let these emotions sit in your body, your body and mind can be emotionally hijacked.
Unbridled empathy can lead to concentrations of the stress hormone cortisol, making it difficult to release the emotions. Taking on other people’s feelings so that you live their experience can make you susceptible to feelings of depression or hopelessness.
Not only will this lead to burnout, you can break the bond of trust you were hoping to strengthen. When you embody other people’s emotions, you may feel responsible for relieving their pain. You feel the need to fix their problems and make them feel better.
Thankfully it’s not all bad news! Even during the tough times, we have the ability tend to ourselves when we begin recognising the signs of emotional/compassion fatigue. These are the times when practising self-care becomes an important and vital part for maintaining positive mental wellbeing, as well as other aspects of wellbeing. As shown in the video, the character began regaining energy when he spent time with his dog (pets are a wonderful form of comfort, companionship and therapy).
In recent times, my self-care plan has included going for walks, checking out concerts and exhibitions, coffee chats with friends, hanging out with my partner and pet cat, taking moments to be ‘still’, listening to inspirational podcasts, to reframing how I go about my work. Oh, and most importantly, being kinder to myself. The reality is that I am not able to fix everything for myself and others. And that is a fact.