Empathy allows us to understand and share what another is feeling, and it is the foundation of intimacy and connection. Practicing empathy has several positive attributes, and one is that it can help us heal.

When we empathize with others, we make them feel deeply understood beyond words. We might even heal ourselves by humble recognition that we are not the only ones in this, that the feelings of others are as meaningful as our own.

Unfortunately, through empathy we can also experience hurt. We diminish the distance between ourselves and another’s suffering. Sometimes, we might feel things that hurt us while we heal, such as empathizing with the pain of someone who walked away from us while healing ourselves from the pain of our abandonment. Empathy is a powerful force, and it is important to be aware of how it can positively and negatively impact your mental health. 

The physical effects of empathy

We hear of “compassion fatigue” among those in the healing professions. Neuroscience tells us that the term 'compassion fatigue' is misleading - it is empathy that can have negative physical and emotional effects. 

When we empathize, we physically mirror the emotions of another. Our brain shows activation with a near-identical circuit to the person we are empathizing with. When we empathize with distress, our body enters its “fight or flight” response and our cortisol levels rise, as if we too are stressed. Over time this can create physical health problems, especially cardiovascular ones. It can also lead to feelings of exhaustion, anxiety, or depression.

Empathy is one of the most important skills you can learn as a human, but in order to help others heal, you need to be mindful of your own mental health.

Compassion, on the other hand, activates the area of the brain associated with motivation and reward. Whereas empathy can cause pain and burnout, compassion minimizes the distress of empathy. It does this by moving focus from the feeling to possible responses, thereby shifting our mental framework to a more positive pattern. 

Coping with "empathy fatigue"

All of us are susceptible to “empathy fatigue”, for we all play the role of helper, caretaker, listener, and supporter in our daily relationships. These are some ways that help us hold space for others without losing ourselves: 

  1. Self-awareness

    This is really the prerequisite for safe empathy since imagining and mirroring how another feels requires acknowledging and knowing how emotions feel for ourselves. By attuning our minds to the physical feeling of emotions within our body, we distance ourselves from our immediate responses, letting us act with clarity. We might even learn to distinguish feelings that are our own from those that we might be mirroring.

    Ask yourself: did this feeling begin in my body, and where in my body do I feel it? Do I feel this way when I am alone? Where and when have these emotions shown up for me before, or is the feeling new?

  2. Compassionate meditation or visualization

    We can move from empathy to compassion by envisioning the relief of distressing feelings from whoever we are empathizing with. Similarly, we can transform our own feelings by visualizing ourselves experiencing lighter ones (this is physically effective because the same chemicals are released by the brain in a memory of an experience as in the experience itself). 

    Imagine: what would it look like for this person to experience peace? What would it look like for this person to feel the release of distress? When was a time that I felt peaceful or joyful, and how did that feel in my body? Try these thought exercises and you’ll see how visualization can have tangible effects on your mental health.

  3. Setting boundaries

    We might feel guilty for forming boundaries when we know so intimately how someone feels. Remember that we cannot always be receptacles for other people’s feelings, nor are we responsible for their problems. Sometimes we are more effective at providing support when we limit the support we give. There is nothing beautiful about incurring a huge cost to yourself emotionally for the sake of providing emotional support. 

    Ask yourself: Is this mine to carry? Am I giving warmth and light to this person in a way that supports their own growth? Am I truly listening to them, and do they truly listen to me?

A Note on Healing 

Empathy is beautiful, healing, and extremely human. Ultimately, however, empathy is a gate-way to compassion, and helping others heal helps us realize how we can also heal ourselves. Healing ourselves involves learning about ourselves. We learn about ourselves by listening with our full presence to others, and listening to our own bodies and minds. We help others heal by listening to them, compassionately and without judgement, holding space for them to be wherever they are at. 

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