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Empathy Can Drain You, but Compassion May Sustain You

It’s good to care for others, but essential to care for yourself.

Key points

  • Empathy involves recognizing another person’s feelings, “feeling” them yourself, and communicating your understanding to that person.
  • Compassion takes us a step further—it adds motivation to take action to our empathic response.
  • Compassion satisfaction can motivate us to keep going by nourishing our sense of meaning and the belief that we are helping others.
  • There are ways to respond to compassion fatigue that will allow us to find satisfaction in our caring again.

The past two years have tested all of us in various ways in a variety of settings. Never having experienced a pandemic before, many of us fell into a state of perpetual unfocused anxiety as lockdowns began and access to what we all considered “normal life” diminished. Fear for our own health was equaled or overshadowed by fear for the health of our loved ones who might be more vulnerable to the mysterious virus that no one fully understood.

From wiping down groceries and airing out mail and packages that were delivered to our door to the continuing worries we might have when someone in our vicinity coughs or sneezes, we were driven to do what we could to protect ourselves from the virus. Those who cared passionately about health and safety were further stressed by those who were more lackadaisical and uninvested in respecting the public health guidelines or the well-being of their fellow humans. The pandemic brought out the best pro-social qualities in some of us and the worst anti-social tendencies in others.

A word of advice: Choose compassion over empathy.

When we see another suffering, the vast majority of psychologically healthy people will feel a sense of empathy for that person... meaning that we “get what they’re feeling.” The skills of emotional and cognitive empathy develop early in childhood (Singer, 2006), and their presence helps us bind together as a community. Empathy involves recognizing another person’s feelings, “feeling” them yourself, and communicating your understanding to that person. Empathy stops there—and can actually be a draining experience in that both folks are left with negative feelings, whether it’s fear, anxiety, sadness, or stress. However, compassion takes you one step further—it includes the element of action!

To be compassionate is to also desire to alleviate the negative feelings of another, and that allows us the opportunity to make a positive difference for that person. We don’t just see a child on the ground with a newly scraped knee and identify with their pain and assure them, “I know how bad that must hurt.” We also reach out to help the child up; we seek out first aid supplies and do what we can to alleviate the suffering. That’s where the magic of compassion is found—in providing active comfort or support to another, we are boosting our own well-being.

Altruistic acts generate the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is one of those “feel-good” neurochemicals that positively affect our mood, attitude, and view of the world. Altruism has also been shown to be positively related to longevity and healthy immune systems. Doing good for others through compassionate action does good for ourselves. That’s the relationship between action and reaction that can truly foster significant changes in our world.

For those of us who are feeling as if our hearts have been overtaxed from caring too much, compassion fatigue may be the culprit. Do any of the following descriptive phrases reflect how you are feeling?

Seven signs of compassion fatigue

  1. Work no longer offers the same sense of meaning it once did.
  2. Exhaustion is hard to shake—from your body, your mind, or your heart.
  3. You desire to isolate yourself from others, not out of fear of illness, but out of a need to “turn off” the world.
  4. You have a compromised sense of self-worth—you feel you can’t bring what you once did to life and to others.
  5. Sleep isn’t the peaceful retreat it once was; quality and quantity have suffered.
  6. Work has grown to feel increasingly and inescapably intense.
  7. Support from others (especially employers) seems to have dried up.

Not only do you feel that your compassion has run dry, which can be a terribly upsetting realization to make, but you also have lost your feelings of compassion satisfaction. Compassion satisfaction is that sense of meaning that caring for others can bring. When we’re actively engaged in showing compassion and care for others, it allows us to view ourselves as “good people,” and this positive self-assessment keeps us from falling over the cliff of burnout. When we’re the kind of person that others see as authentically satisfied through our care, not putting on a fake attitude, their positive appreciation for what we’re doing to help will positively affect our self-esteem.

Five signs of compassion satisfaction

What does compassion satisfaction look like? You’ll know it when you experience these things:

  1. Taking pleasure in doing the job and doing it well.
  2. Feeling fulfillment through helping others face trauma, illness, and challenges.
  3. Being motivated and fulfilled through helping colleagues do their jobs.
  4. Believing that the work you do does make a difference.
  5. Seeing stressors realistically, but being able to let them go appropriately.

Seven ways to renew your compassion satisfaction

When you’re ready to focus on ditching the fatigue and embracing hope for a better future for yourself and others, engage in these:

  1. Attend to the body: sleep, diet, and exercise—the teacher is the tool through which education takes place.
  2. Bring variety into your day—it keeps your brain engaged and helps you avoid a sense of “stuckness.”
  3. Take time to build a little pleasure or fun into every hour of your workday; this may encourage you to stretch yourself to appreciate as “fun” tasks that you might otherwise have felt were a drag.
  4. Take time at the end of each day to appreciate what you did well.
  5. Acknowledge your mistakes without beating up on yourself, and use them as opportunities to master a new task or learn something new.
  6. Set healthy boundaries that honor your own needs but support the autonomy of others.
  7. Connect, connect, connect!


Singer, T. (2006). The neuronal basis and ontogeny of empathy and mind reading: Review of literature and implications for future research, Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 30(6), 855-863. DOI: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2006.06.011.