Compassion fatigue: Is it a thing?

Mindfulness teacher Annie Akasati McAuley shares her insights on the difference between empathy and compassion. You can find information on Annie’s weekly mindful compassion drop-ins here.

Yesterday, three-year-old Tara cried for five hours straight. The earache was painful for her but also for her parents, for whom her pain was almost as vivid as if it were their own.

This is the experience of empathy; knowing another person’s feelings deep within oneself. It is a natural expression of fellow feeling, fostering connection and close relationships. Yet with too much empathy we can become distressed ourselves. We may become angry, or recoil in horror, wanting to get away. Or we may go numb and avoid the other person altogether. Reacting like this leads to what is sometimes known as compassion fatigue. But this phrase is a misnomer.

Focussing on the suffering alone activates places in the brain associated with pain

Portrait of Annie Akasati McAuley, mindfulness teacher
Annie Akasati McAuley

Neuroscientist Tania Singer studied empathy with Matthieu Ricard, a long-term practitioner of Buddhist meditation. Singer asked Ricard to watch a film about deprived children in an orphanage. The lack of human love had devastated these children’s bodies and minds. As Ricard focused on the suffering of these children, she scanned the activity in his brain. This revealed brain patterns associated with pain.

Ricard felt emotionally drained. He asked if he could continue, but use compassion meditation to help with these feelings. Now, the scans showed activity associated with love and care. He concluded the experiment in an uplifted state of mind. The study showed how empathy can lead us towards exhaustion and a state known as empathic overwhelm. But it can also lead towards an enriching experience of compassion.

True compassion has no downsides

I can recall an insight of my own in relation to compassion. A friend had opened up about a hurtful aspect in early life. I could feel how painful this issue had been and I resonated, yet felt no distress in myself. I was grateful that she had opened up to me and the connection between us was warm and heartfelt. I noticed that I felt alive, bright and not in any way upset or fatigued.

True compassion has no downsides. Those who experience it become uplifted.

So, what determines if empathy becomes overwhelming or compassionate? The fundamental difference lies in where we stand in relation to the other person. Empathy leads us to identify with another’s feelings and emotions. It is the extent of identification that matters. We can become too involved in the other and lose touch with our own feelings and needs. We experience their emotions as our own; their suffering as our own. This is unhelpful. We need to remain aware of ourselves in relation to the other person. We can still feel for them while knowing that we are not them.

And compassion is not just about how we treat other people. It becomes more sustainable when we can be a little kinder to ourselves, honouring our own needs. We might need to take a step back from a challenging situation; express our emotions to a friend or colleague; take a rest or a nourishing break.

Compassion is a wholly positive state of mind. Yet it requires engaging with suffering. How to do this without feeling distressed ourselves? The answer lies in being mindful of our own body and feelings. This helps to distinguish between oneself and another, allowing a healthy degree of separation. We are no longer consumed by the troubles of the other person, and a sense of kinship can develop. Out of this arises a natural wish to do what we can to ease suffering for the other person. This is a fundamental aspect of compassion. The wish is spontaneous, yet it is also discerning. We know how and when to act. Sometimes there may be little we can do to help, other than open our heart to that person. There may, or may not be, a warm glow that accompanies compassion. Our response may be tender, yet it may also be challenging. We are no longer afraid to approach the other person.

True compassion has no downsides. Those who experience it become uplifted. Those who receive it benefit. And those who witness it are often inspired to be compassionate themselves. We could call this a win-win-win situation. Once we understand this, talk of ‘compassion fatigue’ makes no sense.

But if compassion is so wonderful and so natural, why are we not all doing it every day? Is there a catch? In a sense, yes. As with mindfulness, much of the time it is not our automatic response. We are all able to be compassionate, but we can cover it up. Mindfulness training is not so much about learning something new. It is learning to open to something already there. Compassion is the same. It takes clear intention and ongoing effort.

Here’s some suggestions for cultivating compassion for oneself and others:

  • Notice suffering. Name it for what it is. Then ask a question. What would be a kind, compassionate response right now? What do we need to do?
  • Note any natural feelings of tenderness, care and a desire to help that may arise.
  • Notice compassionate responses in others. Let your emotions move you.
  • Practice a loving-kindness or compassion meditation.
  • Enrol on a compassion course. I recommend Mindful Self-Compassion; Mindfulness-based Compassionate Living, or Compassion Cultivation Training.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries.
Without them humanity cannot survive.”

Dalai Lama

You can join Matthieu Ricard to hear how altruism can be the best response to the suffering of our times at our upcoming event.