In an earlier blog entry, I described some of the differences between empathy and compassion. In another blog entry, I outlined some of the pitfalls of empathy, to include burn out at work. This writing is devoted to describing how empathy can drive burnout among helping professionals.
It is a relief to know that I am not somehow shirking my humanity do not feel the pain of families were making end-of-life decisions for a loved one, or who are getting the news of a loved one staff, or people I am telling that they have a mental disorder. It is a nice idea but I can actively work to shut down my emotional response without losing my compassion.
The risks of empathy are perhaps the most obvious with therapists, who have to continually deal with people who are depressed, anxious, deluded, and often in severe emotional pain. There is a rich theoretical discussion among psychotherapists about the complex interpersonal relationships between therapist and their patients. But anyone who thinks that it’s important for a therapist to feel depressed or anything else while dealing with the pastor anxious people is missing the point of therapy.
Actually, therapy would be an impossible job for many of us because of our inability to shut down our empathic responses. But good therapists are unusual in that regard. For those of us who are clinical psychologists and other psychotherapists who practice from a place of empathy – – wherein the patient suffers and then in turn, we suffer – even a few hours of work can be exhausting. On the other hand, those of us who practice psychotherapy from a place of compassion can often work long hours, with patients back-to-back, and this work does not feel draining, but rather exhilarating. We employ understanding and caring, not empathy.
I hope these blogs have been helpful to readers. If you or someone you know is experiencing burnout and works in a helping profession, please consider me a resource. I’ve aided many people in these fields to reflect, gain perspective, and actively learn skills they can develop to protect them from burning out.