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How to Be Compassionate Without Burning Out

Practices can promote well-being and resilience.

Compassion practice is a type of meditation that originates from the Buddhist tradition. It has been established as a useful adjunct to psychotherapy and involves cultivating feelings of love and compassion towards oneself and others. Over the years, research has been conducted to determine the effects of compassion practices on individuals. The results of these studies suggest that compassion practices have significant positive effects on physical, emotional, and social health. (1)

One of the identified effects involves the reduction of stress and anxiety in individuals who practice regularly. (2) Compassion practices have also been found to increase positive emotions such as love, joy, and happiness. Further, they increase feelings of empathy and sensitivity towards others. They can also improve self-esteem and self-acceptance, including self-compassion and self-love. (3)

Even though compassion practices, such as cultivating empathy, kindness, and altruism, have positive effects on our society, (4) there can also be adverse effects.

Emotional exhaustion and overwhelm can develop when one empathizes deeply with another’s suffering over time. Continuous exposure to others in distress can lead to burnout, particularly in caregivers. (5)

Caregivers who practice compassion practices may also over-identify with the people they work with and feel inadequate about not being helpful enough. They may even develop compassion fatigue with emotional numbing and reduced motivation, and the lack of effective boundaries may lead to the sacrificing of the caregiver’s own needs, and a lack of self-care.

Most of the adverse effects mentioned above result from perceiving oneself from an ego-identified perspective,(6) meaning a perspective where we have excessive worry and are concerned about how we are perceived by and compared to others. When we live entirely from the perspective of a conventional sense of reality, we assume that at the core of our being is a separate self, which is apart from others, and often we feel alienated and alone. When this is our habitual way of experiencing the world, we become gripped by difficult thoughts, feelings, worries, and desires. In our wish to heal these old wounds, we can get caught in what social worker and meditation teacher Loch Kelly calls a psychological underpass. (7) Our hurt parts or old painful patterns—and the attempt to overcome those wounds—can become a form of identification. We may then identify with an orphan self or see ourselves primarily as a victim of trauma, a survivor of hardship, or a wounded helper. (8)

With a healthy sense of self, we feel good about who we are, but we also understand that we are a particle in the interdependent web of life. Now we accept to be one individual amongst many others. Such an attitude can be good for ourselves and those we engage with. But if we are too attached to being better than others or if we are fixated on being less worthy, this sense of self can be a burden. In several ways, we can free ourselves from an exaggerated and burdensome sense of self. Buddhist psychotherapy can help in this way. Emptiness-of-self practices allow us to realize that we are all interconnected and always changing, yet meaningful in our nature as a passing phenomenon. (9)

Such a view helps us to reduce our primary identification as a permanent, solid, unchanging self, which allows us to feel fluidly interconnected with a wider sense of being. In this way, we learn to respect our true essence. C.G. Jung called this essence the Self with a big S. Then we understand that we are one with what is called natural awareness, a state of wisdom and caring. In this way, Jung and transpersonal psychologists point to another way of perceiving our experience. (10)

When we learn to touch into what might be called natural awareness, then our perspective can change. (11) The tension that entangles our personal wounds can gradually uncoil. As we gain access to the field quality of natural awareness, we eventually learn to hold the ups and downs of our lives. Now we can cultivate a way of being in the world that is more effortless, in an open-hearted, lighter way. This gives us the chance to feel great compassion for all of those in distress.

Loch Kelly adds, “Compassionate action becomes our natural expression.” (12) Caring and compassion are attributes of natural awareness, which are always present. When we tap into and rest in natural awareness, we will not burn out, but, instead, stay creative and open-hearted in our engagement with the whole of life. (12)


(1). Controlled clinical trial comparing the effectiveness of a mindfulness and self-compassion 4-session programme versus an 8-session programme to reduce work stress and burnout in family and community medicine physicians and nurses: MINDUUDD study protocol.

Perula et al, 2019 Feb 6;20(1):24. doi: 10.1186/s12875-019-0913-z.PMID: 30727962

(2). Mindfulness- and compassion-based interventions for family carers of older adults: A scoping review.

Murfield J, Moyle W, O'Donovan A.Int J Nurs Stud. 2021 Apr;116:103495. doi: 10.1016/j.ijnurstu.2019.103495. Epub 2019 Dec 2.PMID: 31862112 Review. (2)

(3). Meditation benefits and drawbacks: empirical codebook and implications for teaching (3)

T Anderson, M Suresh, NAS Farb - Journal of Cognitive Enhancement, 2019 - Springer

(4). Frontiers Psychol. 2016; 7: 1349.

Published online 2016 Sep 5. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01349

PMCID: PMC5011126

PMID: 27656158

Helping Others, Warming Yourself: Altruistic Behaviors Increase Warmth Feelings of the Ambient Environment

Tian-Yi Hu,1,2 Jingyu Li,1 Huiyuan Jia,1,3 and Xiaofei Xie1,*(

(5). Why would you want to be more compassionate? A qualitative study of the pros and cons to cultivating self-compassion in individuals with anorexia nervosa. Allison Kelly, Aleece Katan, Linda Sosa Hernandez, Bethany Nightingale, Josie Geller. British Journal of Clinical Psychology, 2020

(6). IvyPanda. (2021, January 29). Psychology Forces in Wilber's "Spectrum of Consciousness".

(7) & (12). The Way of Effortless Mindfulness: A revolutionary guide for an awakened life. Loch Kelly, LCSW, 2019 Sounds True, Boulder

(8). Shift into Freedom, Loch Kelly, Sounds True, 2015

(9). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. William Van Gordon, Edo Shonin, Mark D Griffiths. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality 9 (4), 309, 2017

(10). The Undiscovered Self. Carl Gustave Jung, Re-published (2005) Routledge

(11). Eran Laish (2015) Natural Awareness: The Discovery of Authentic Being in the rDzogs chen Tradition, Asian Philosophy, 25:1, 34-64, DOI: 10.1080/09552367.2015.1016735

(12). Mapping Complex Mind-states: EEG neural substrates of meditative unified compassionate awareness, Consciousness and Cognition, 57 (2018), 41-53

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