How to Deal with Empathy Fatigue

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Pandemic, loss, social injustice, racial violence, uncertainty, natural disasters, deadly accidents, division.

This describes the last two years for most of us. Whether we’ve lived it, or watched events unfold through ever-present phone screens, we’ve undoubtedly felt the emotional impact.

For many of us, we’ve poured empathy out in excess. Maybe we supported our loved ones by listening intently and relating to their concerns. Perhaps we worked hard to protect our fellow citizens from illness. Or maybe we tried to understand the challenges and feelings of persecuted minority groups.

We did this all while trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. So, it’s understandable that we may feel worn down, and may be experiencing empathy fatigue.

What is Empathy Fatigue?

For many of us, empathizing with the troubles of the world and its people comes easily. Technology has made it possible to be more connected than ever before.

While this has its definite upsides, it also means we’re more aware of global inequalities and hardship.

Being knowledgeable about world events is great, as it helps us overcome ignorance and advocate for meaningful change.

However, the 24/7 access to news media can take an emotional toll. If we spend all day putting ourselves in others’ shoes, we may suffer an empathy hangover.   

Emotional Signs of Empathy Fatigue

  • Withdrawing from others
  • Blaming ourselves for others’ problems
  • Feeling powerless/hopeless
  • Feeling irritated or on edge
  • Repetitive thoughts about the injustices faced by others
  • Anger, sadness, or depression
  • Trouble relating to others
  • A reduced inability to care or respond appropriately to life events

Physical Signs of Empathy Fatigue

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Racing thoughts
  • Increased use of drugs/alcohol
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Stomach problems
  • Avoiding responsibilities
  • Appetite changes
  • Concentration issues
  • Headaches
  • Relationship problems

How to Deal with Empathy Fatigue

Practice Self-Awareness

We may feel guilty for our reduced ability to care. Maybe we think about all the people who don’t have the luxury of disconnecting. Or perhaps we feel selfish because we know others may have it worse.

Regardless, it’s not beneficial to beat ourselves up about it. It won’t solve anyone else’s problems, and it won’t make us feel better.

The first thing we can do is practice self awareness. This is the ability to notice our emotions and needs. Doing this allows us to give ourselves the appropriate resources we need to cope.

When we notice ourselves feeling drained, we can consider:

  • How our body feels
  • How our mind feels
  • Our thoughts
  • What triggered the exhaustion
  • How we’re reacting to empathy fatigue

Show Some Compassion

Once we’re aware of our emotions, we can extend ourselves compassion. This means treating ourselves gently when we’re dealing with difficult feelings.

It’s helpful to consider how we would treat a friend who was experiencing empathy fatigue. We are often kinder to our loved ones than we are to ourselves.

We may say to ourselves:

  • “It’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s normal.”
  • “I am allowed to take time to care for myself.”
  • “I choose to be patient with myself.”

Find Balance

We should be mindful of the time we spend scrolling our news feeds and worrying about others’ problems.

In healthy doses, these activities are useful. But we need to ensure we take time to disconnect before we’re fatigued.

Practicing intentional disengagement, participating in hobbies, and keeping up with self care are useful for beating empathy fatigue. E.g.

  • Set healthy boundaries with people.
  • Spend time alone
  • Limit social media use
  • Exercise
  • Eat nutritious meals
  • See friends
  • Keep up with hygiene
  • Get outside

Empathy for others – and concern about the world – is a valuable quality. But when it starts to degrade our well being, it’s okay to take a step back.

When we take care of our own needs, we are better equipped to extend empathy to others.


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