Empathy Fatigue Is Real. Here’s How to Manage It.

UPDATED: April 22, 2024
PUBLISHED: March 14, 2024
Woman with empathy fatigue trying to pay attention to a conversation over coffee but failing

Empathy—the ability to understand another person’s feelings and emotions—is an essential skill in the workplace and beyond. A key component of emotional intelligence, empathy helps us relate better to others, from loved ones to coworkers and customers. But what if the line between our feelings and what other people feel starts to blur? Can we experience empathy fatigue from having too much empathy?

What is empathy fatigue?

Empathy fatigue occurs when we relate too much to the suffering of others, causing us to feel overwhelmed and burned out. Our relationships can be affected, too. In a small 2020 study of people with high empathy, researchers found that the trait “presented as significantly impacting intrapersonal and interpersonal processes sometimes for benefit within both the professional and personal realms but often with negative impact.”

The problem isn’t necessarily that we have too much empathy, but the way we’re expressing it is a type of “overwork,” says Matt Lundquist, psychotherapist and the founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy. If a friend is going through something difficult, that overexpression of empathy might make us think, “I ought to feel all of the intensity of this excruciating experience along with them,” says Lundquist. 

While being moved by another’s plight is part of being human, the way we respond can sometimes be problematic. When your partner is in a bad mood or your child has a terrible day at school, you can’t help but feel affected. “Our own emotional state shifts when we’re near somebody we love who’s struggling,” says Dr. Alexandra Solomon, a licensed clinical psychologist and the author of Love Every Day. This shift creates a sense of urgency that can feel like energy we want to discharge, she says, so we leap in to offer solutions, hoping if our loved one feels better, we will, too.

Lundquist compares the experience of empathy fatigue to swimming at a beach and seeing someone floundering in the water. “The inclination is to want to dive right in the water and rescue them,” he says. But just like jumping into uncertain waters is risky, diving headfirst into fixing someone else’s negative feelings doesn’t necessarily serve us or the person we’re trying to help. Not only does it drain our emotional resources, in the long run it can prevent others from developing their own resilience.

Signs of empathy fatigue

Experts say there are some signs that can determine whether you might be experiencing empathy fatigue or burnout.

Empathy has gone awry

You identify so strongly with someone else’s problems that you end up feeling more upset than they do. For instance, imagine your child doesn’t make the soccer team. You want to be empathetic, so you envision how you would feel in that situation. Suddenly you’re devastated, because you recall a similar experience growing up. But your child seems to be taking it in stride. 

SUCCESS Newsletter offer

When we disregard the fact that others may experience a challenge differently than we would, “we kind of collapse the space between ourselves and the other person,” says Solomon.

Feeling exhausted

You spend more time worrying about other people’s problems than your own. At work, if you’re the person everyone turns to with their troubles, you might notice that “it’s 11 a.m. and you’re tired, but you haven’t done any of your work yet,” Lundquist says. Or you can’t walk to the bathroom without two or three coworkers stopping you to talk. It impacts your personal life as well: Maybe it’s the weekend, but you find yourself ruminating about a colleague’s problem.

If you’re not sure whether you’re in too deep, check with your most empathetic friend about what they’ve observed. Lundquist suggests asking, “Do I take on too much of other people’s stuff?” 

Feeling detached or lack of empathy

Empathy fatigue can cause you to feel detached and unable to identify with others, emotionally or physically. This overexertion of empathy or “empathy burnout” often leads to feeling psychologically numb—for example: telling yourself that bad things happen all the time and asking—“why should I care?”

Being too empathetic to a point of burn can also cause you to feel reduced empathy, inability to react to bad news or support loved ones in your life. For example: you might claim “I don’t have the space to listen to this right now.”

How to deal with empathy fatigue

We can counter empathy fatigue by learning to better manage how we use this skill.

Establish boundaries

Having clear emotional boundaries means we can care about and support others, while also recognizing and maintaining our own separateness, says Lundquist. Instead of jumping into that murky water to rescue someone, we first consider our own safety. “Is the water in fact safe? Is there a way that instead of diving in, you could grab a pole and have them hold on?” he says. In real life, that might look like helping a coworker who just lost a huge client by offering to brainstorm ideas over lunch, but not taking on the coworker’s upset feelings as our own, Lundquist says. Setting boundaries can also mean creating rules or habits that enable you to be less available, such as finding spaces in your office or home where you’re less likely to be interrupted.

Focus on your response

When we feel affected by someone else’s negative emotions, our knee-jerk response is to fix what’s wrong. A better strategy is to “practice flexing that muscle of feeling [that] activation” without responding behaviorally, says Solomon. If your child is struggling with a friendship, for instance, “what is actually most helpful is for me to quiet down, to pull back and leave them some space to experience this for a moment,” she says.

Provide other ways to connect

We can think of empathy as a resource that’s renewable, yet finite on any given day. So if we’ve spent all afternoon dealing with a difficult client, we might feel too depleted to empathize with our partner or kids later that evening. Be honest and offer other ways to connect, says Solomon. You might say, “I can’t process this, but I would love to watch a show with you, or I would love to play a game with you,” she says. 

Consider therapy

Some of us are more vulnerable to empathy fatigue. People with high emotional intelligence tend to be highly empathetic as well. Those of us who experience more depression and anxiety might also experience more empathy burnout. Sometimes, the tendency to overexpress empathy is rooted in messages we absorbed at a younger age, “when we were taught that our worth rests on our helpfulness,” says Solomon. 

For people who are really struggling, therapy can help them “reorganize their relationship with empathy,” says Lundquist. 

Empathy is a gift, but like all gifts, you have to use it with care, says Solomon.

Photo by Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.com