I’m stuck, you’re stuck: Maintaining our wellness or empathy

4 May 2022

Everyone gets stuck at some point. Whether at work, in a relationship, making decisions about change or even about what to do next.

It can also be tough for those supporting a friend or family member who feel stuck. Remaining empathetic can be difficult especially when support is needed over an extended period of time.

Empathic concern can motivate us to help relieve suffering, yet empathy fatigue can leave us taking on the feelings of others and lead to a decline in our own wellbeing.

So, how can we protect ourselves from other people’s emotional distress without becoming indifferent? How can we nurture our natural empathy and avoid empathy fatigue?

At various points in our lives, we can all feel trapped and unable to move forward. This can happen even though we’re aware that we are unhappy and want change. Sometimes we can become bogged down and avoid looking at what change might mean. We procrastinate or focus on life’s distractions. Why? Because change can be scary.

Our fears are usually what underlie our inability to look at and make changes. They are what can hold us back and keep us feeling stuck. Whether this is the fear of reaching our goal, the stress change can bring, or even the goal itself. We’re not always aware what these fears are, so when we feel stuck it’s important to ask ourselves “What is my fear and what is causing it?”

The benefits of sharing stories are widely recognised. Sharing a story with a trusted family member or friend is a way for people to feel less isolated, and to appreciate that others are in similar situations. Repeating their story may allow them to explore a past that is part of their present and give them the opportunity to move on. This might be one reason you hear their story repeatedly.

Empathy is a really valuable trait in both our private and professional lives. However, the more a person opens themselves up to another's' pain, the more they may come to share those feelings of distress. People who regularly listen to and engage with other people’s suffering can be at higher risk of empathy fatigue and end up neglecting their own self-care. However, losing empathy for others can affect anyone. It can result from exposure to one case of suffering, or an accumulated ‘emotional build up’.

Mark Stebnicki Doctor of Philosophy & Clinical Military Counsellor coined the phrase Empathy Fatigue in 1998. He states that empathy fatigue results from a state of complete exhaustion when we provide support and listen compassionately to others. We can sit in a person’s suffering and respond empathically but our own pain can also be revisited by their story. Ongoing, this can lead to reduced empathy, resiliency and coping abilities. So, what can we do to reduce this risk?

We can become educated about empathy fatigue. Taking the time to learn the signs can be helpful. You’re then able to check in on yourself and see how you’re coping whilst supporting someone over a period of time.

Emotional signs can include:

  • Feeling isolated, numb or disconnected
  • Lack of energy to care about things around you
  • Feeling overwhelmed, powerless or hopeless
  • Feeling unable to relate to others
  • Repetitive thinking about the suffering of others.

Physical signs can include:

  • Poor concentration,
  • Nausea, headaches, upset stomach
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Using alcohol or drugs to manage your feelings
  • Feeling tired all the time.

These signs can indicate empathy fatigue- and can also be an indicator of other illness or generally a lack of wellbeing. If this sounds like you, stop and check in with yourself. Seek help from a health professional if you experience these for more than a few days.

It’s important to acknowledge how you’re feeling and practice self-compassion. We’re often so busy we don’t pay attention to how we’re feeling and when we do, we push those feelings away. Sometimes, though, it’s important to feel an emotion and sit with it. As you go through your day, identify what is causing you stress. Be mindful and recognise how you feel physically and mentally when this occurs. Try to notice your emotion without reacting to it.

Do you find yourself worrying about the state of the world, outstanding problems at work or, issues beyond your control? Balance in life is important. Give yourself permission to find a balance that you’re happy with starting with you own self-care. This includes a healthy diet, regular exercise, a good sleep routine and spending time doing things you enjoy.

If you are supporting a friend or family member who is stuck and you re starting to feel overwhelmed, why not arrange an activity that you can do together, which will focus the conversation away from their problems, at least for some of the time you are together.  You could also try putting some boundaries in for yourself, practice a kind and gentle but firm sentence that feels comfortable for you, something like “I am sorry you are having a really tough time right now, but would you mind if we talked about something else for a while.? I am concerned about you and if you need to talk some more, you can consider calling Lifeline (or other person/ service).

With COVID restrictions it can be difficult to feel connected, but it can be incredibly healing to those experiencing empathy fatigue. When coming together is too hard try connecting by video calling, ringing or texting people you care about. Talking about your feelings with a trusted friend can be extremely beneficial, as can seeking professional support. If you are struggling or in crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Written by Susie Biggin.

Susie Biggin is a Wellbeing Coordinator at Lifeline WA, offering peer support on the subject of wellness to her colleagues and volunteer peers. She has been a Crisis Supporter since 2011. Susie is also an experienced Livingworks ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Trainer) Master Trainer.