‟Empathy Fatigue” - 1

By Matthieu Ricard on October 03, 2013

The word empathy means an affective resonance with someone else. If you are moved by the suffering of someone, even though you make a clear distinction between yourself and that person, you suffer because she suffers. You may also feel joy when she feels joy. Researchers found that a part of their brain network associated with pain is activated in subjects who watch someone being hurt.

When repeated over time, empathic resonance with others' pain can lead to empathic distress and emotional exhaustion, or burnout. According to a study carried out in North America, 60 % of all nurses, doctors, and caregivers who are in constant contact with patients experiencing suffering have or will suffer burnout at some point in their professional life.

Compassion and selfless love are associated with positive emotions. Based on this, in the course of my collaboration with Tania Singer, a neuroscientist Director at the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, we realized that burnout was actually a due to ‟empathy fatigue” and not to ‟compassion fatigue”. In fact, compassion far from leading to distress and discouragement strengthens our fortitude, our inner balance and our courageous determination to help those who suffer. In essence, from our point of view, love and compassion do not wear out. Rather they help to overcome empathic distress.

These three dimensions — altruistic love, empathy and compassion — are naturally connected. Within altruistic love, or benevolence, empathy alerts us that the other person might be suffering. Compassion — the desire to dispel these sufferings and their causes — follows. Thus, when confronted with suffering, altruistic love, catalyzed by empathy, becomes compassion.