‟Empathy Fatigue” - 2

By Matthieu Ricard on October 09, 2013

Recently, I was talking with a nurse, who, like most of her colleagues, is constantly confronted with the sufferings and problems of the patients she cares for. She told me that the new training for healthcare personnel, in order to avoid the infamous burnout which affects so many healthcare workers, emphases the ‟necessity of keeping an emotional distance from the patient”.

This woman, who was very warm and whose mere presence was reassuring, then confided to me, ‟It is strange. I feel as if I'm gaining something when I take care of people who are suffering, but when I speak of this ‘gain' to my colleagues, I feel guilty about feeling something positive.” I briefly described to her the differences that seem to exist between compassion and empathic distress. This difference was similar to her experience and explained why she had no reason to feel guilty.

Contrary to empathic distress, love and compassion are positive states of mind that reinforce our inner ability to confront others' sufferings. If a child is hospitalized, the presence of a loving mother at his side who holds his hand and comforts him with tender words will no doubt do him more good than the anxiety of a mother overwhelmed with empathic distress who, unable to bear the sight of her sick child, paces back and forth in the hallway. Reassured by my explanations, my nurse friend told me that despite qualms she occasionally had, this point of view agreed with her experience as a caregiver.

In light of Tania Singer's preliminary research, it seems logical that those whose profession is to help suffering people on a daily basis be trained in altruistic love and compassion. Such training would also help close relatives (parents, children, spouses) who take care of sick or handicapped people. Altruistic love creates in us a positive space that serves as an antidote to empathic distress. It prevents affective resonance from proliferating until it becomes paralyzing and engenders the emotional exhaustion characteristic of burnout. 

Without the support of love and compassion, empathy by itself is like an electric pump through which no water circulates, and it will quickly overheat and burn. Empathy should take place within the much vaster space of altruistic love.

It is also important to consider the cognitive aspect of compassion, in other words understanding the different levels of suffering and its manifest and latent causes. Thus, we will be able to be in the service of others by helping them effectively while still preserving our inner strength, kindness, and inner peace.