I feel almost awful admitting this. I’m not even sure how I’m bringing myself to write this blog. Empathy and fatigue don’t seem to sit well in the same sentence. But I truly believe it’s something that needs to be addressed. We must speak about it. We must drag it into the daylight for everyone to see and acknowledge. Only by talking about it can we stop it from dragging us backward.
Saying the words ’empathy fatigue’ makes me wish I could take them back. I want to recoil at the idea. I hate the thought that there is a time where empathy might have to be denied or withdrawn. It’s the antithesis to much of what I believe or hope for (more here). A more empathetic society. Where we lean on each other because together we are stronger. A world where it is okay to ask for help. And a world where support is freely given.
Empathy Reality Check
And yet, empathy fatigue is real. I’ve felt it. I’ve been there, I’ve done that and I’ve got multiple t-shirts. And I’ve felt awful about it every. single. time. Whether it’s wishing someone could just sort themselves out. Or being hesitant to check a message or pick up the phone. That moment where I just wish they’d be okay. The frustration. The fear that I’ll be asked to lend a hand or give time when I simply have none. When someone comes to me needing to talk but I’m up to my eyeballs in my own thoughts and feelings.
It’s times like these that I need an empathy reality check. Although it feels wrong it’s a clear sign that I need to put my self first. To quote Bilbo Baggins, when I start feeling “thin…stretched. Like butter scraped over too much bread”, I need to stop. Pause. Check in with myself because this is a sign. My body and mind are screaming out for me to looking after myself. And I must heed the call.
Empathy Isn’t Easy
But how can I? When saying yes to myself means a no for someone else. How could I in good conscious do so? Do I believe my problems are more important than that of another? For the record, I don’t. I truly don’t. But what’s the other option? Keep pushing myself and my own problems away. Deny myself what I readily give to others. This seems like a noble and selfless thing to do. But how can it last? As per an earlier post, we mustn’t “set ourselves on fire to keep other people warm”. Because if we do we’ll burn to ash and then we’re no good to anyone.
Whilst this might seem like an overestimation or like amateur dramatics. It’s not. Empathy isn’t easy and empathy fatigue is real. It happens when we’ve pushed ourselves too far. If you have the time or the mental capacity to help someone when they need it, please do. This is the surest way to a better world. But if this post resonates with you. If you know what I’m talking about please say yes to yourself. At least as often as you say yes to those around you; if not more.
We need more acknowledgement of the reality of giving too much. Because empathy fatigue occurs when we push ourselves too far. When we take the world and it’s burdens on our shoulders. And we’ve left our personal boundaries so far behind in the distance that the line we said we wouldn’t cross can’t be seen anymore.
People who experience empathy fatigue are often the givers amongst us. The person who goes above and beyond. Whose energy seems boundless. Who is always there to lend a hand or a shoulder to cry on. They instinctively seem to know what to say or when to get involved. They live amongst us as colleagues, parents and friends. Being there for others is part of who they are.
So, how do deny that quintessential part of ourselves? Possibly the part that defines us in some way. What’s an empathetic human to do? There doesn’t seem to be a good solution. To suggest avoiding empathy is to betray who many of us are or what we believe in. Because empathy is what makes us human. It’s what builds connections between people. Ultimately it makes this world bearable. So what do you do? When it’s the eleventh hour, when your foot is out the door and a situation arises necessitating empathy. Yes or no?
Perhaps there is a balance to be found. Too much empathy and fatigue beckons at the door. Too little and we’re not being true to ourselves or we feel guilt for abandoning people; possibly when they need us most. We must learn to live in the place inbetween. When we see or feel the warning signs. Step back. Pause. But do so safe in the knowledge that looking after yourself means you can keep giving. You can make the world a better place with your empathy. Because saying, not right now, is not the same thing as saying no.
What are your thoughts on empathy fatigue? Have you experienced it? And how have you dealt with it? Comment below!