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Empathy Doesn't Have to Wear You Out

Workshop participants have often said to me, "You must be exhausted giving all that empathy."  The truth is that offering empathy itself is not particularly exhausting.  It's what gets attached to it that can be exhausting.

In Compassionate Communication empathy is defined as guessing another's feelings and needs.  It sounds simple enough and it is.  That doesn't mean it's easy. 

To offer empathy you learn the vocabulary of feelings and needs and build a fundamental awareness, acceptance, and comfort with them in yourself and others.  This process requires recognizing and working through all the stuff that gets mixed in there.  Let's look at three things that can wear you out when you are trying to offer empathy.

1)  Resistence:  When you resist, that is, judge or withdraw from another's experience while attempting empathy you will feel the heaviness of this internal conflict.  You might have a thought that this person shouldn't have these feelings and needs.  You might notice yourself saying or thinking things like:

-If she wouldn't have done that in the first place she wouldn't have this problem.

-The other person is hurting just as much as he is.

-He's getting what he deserves.

-She keeps herself stuck!

It's especially difficult to be there for someone when you think you see how they could have avoided the situation or you see how they are repeating the same mistakes.  When you find yourself caught here, it's helpful to give yourself empathy before offering it to the other person.

After empathy you may have something you would like to share.  Whatever wise counsel you may eventually offer this person, it will have a much higher chance of being heard if you begin with a neutral acknowledgement of what is true in the moment and a willingness to honor the feelings and needs present.

2)  Obligation:  It might seem like there is a program hard wired in you that says something like, "If I see someone's need, I have to do something."  This habitual belief can wear on you in two ways. 

One, it can have you avoid offering empathy or even avoid being aware of other's feelings and needs because you don't know how to stay in compassion without taking on the problem.  Over time this narrows your awareness and hardens your heart.  You lose access to deep joy, insight, and transformation.

Two, you spend a lot of time analyzing, giving advice, and carrying an extra backpack full of the suffering of the world and how you are going to alleviate it.  My shoulders are still tense from carrying that extra backpack for so long.

One thing that can be helpful to remember with this one is that the best gift you can give another is to stay connected with his or her ability to awaken, transform, and access the wisdom and joy that is always present.  If this seems a bit abstract, you can bring to mind examples in which you saw this person light up with joy or act with wisdom (no matter how small those examples may seem, they are a window into what's possible).

3)  What about your needs?!  When you have a tentative relationship with your own needs, it's hard to have space for the needs of others.  When you are giving someone empathy another part of you is screaming in the background, "I have needs too I can't do this forever.  I need ..."  Having this internal conflict makes giving empathy exhausting.

You establish a relationship of self-trust with regard to your needs through the on-going practices of self-empathy, setting clear & consistent boundaries, and maintaining support systems that contribute to care for your body, heart, mind, and spirit.

Take a moment now to reflect on the last time you offered empathy to another.  If it was a tiring ordeal notice if any of the three challenges listed above were up for you.   If yes, what needs are present for you and what request would you like to make of yourself or another to meet those needs?



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3 Responses

  1. May 28, 2010
    Clark Foerster

    When I am tempted to blame myself or others of "needing too much empathy" I like to remember that empathy is not empathy unless it is paired with my honesty: for me, empathy and honesty are the same energy and dynamic at a deeper level. We can talk about them being separate but my experience is that either is merely one aspect of the same singular level of consciousness. When empathy works for me, this applies. I also recognize that, for the most part, when I am thinking about empathy, it is not empathy. I rarely "do" empathy. When I "do" empathy, I merely play around its edges.

    Thanks for stimulating my thinking and practice, LaShelle.

  2. May 29, 2010

    I like the feeling of expansiveness I get reading your thoughts here, thanks

  3. Jun 07, 2010
    Tam An Tran

    LaShelle, you clearly speak from your own personal experience and this is what I find particularly helpful.

    At a retreat lasting 10 full days from which I only returned last Wednesday, I acknowledged to one of the teachers that I have a difficult time giving myself compassion or empathy by practicing tonglen (taking and giving) and that I tend to be more 'in the moment' when it comes to reciting mantras whenever I hear of others in need via news, or personal contact. When a few of the retreatants asked me if they could do anything for me as I was feeling a bit frustrated for the first couple of days, I said "No" and then I realized I could have said "Yes, practice tonglen for me!"

    In addition to doing 'on-the-spot' or 'in the moment' tonglen, I find exchanging places with the person who irritates me or for whom I find it hard to give empathy. So, I practice in the way that works for me at any given time.

    I've aso heard it said that in giving time and energy to others through empathy or deep listening to their needs, putting them before myself, that such action brings happiness to ourselves as we see the joy in others, thus freeing ourselves from self-cherishing or being too tied-up with self-pity. I have found this to work; yet, there are certainly times when I need empathy as opposed to unhelpful comments. Again it helps to be connected with people who are more 'experienced' in givging such support than I am when I need guidance and help.

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