The shadow side of being highly empathic…

Therapists, healers, coaches and other health professionals are usually drawn to their role because of a desire to help people who are experiencing challenges in life. This group of people are typically highly compassionate individuals who are very attuned to the emotional suffering of the people that they help.  Possessing high levels of empathy is a trait which is fundamental in any healing relationship.  It is the cornerstone of communication, respect and trust.

There is also a shadow side of being a deeply compassionate person. When you are constantly connecting on an emotional level with people who are going through a difficult time, it can eventually lead to increasingly high levels of stress, emotional burnout, and even physical illness or chronic fatigue.  This can impact your ability to continue working, affect your ability to function effectively in life, have a negative effect on your relationships, and lead to a deterioration in your health. In other words, being constantly in tune with high levels of empathy over a prolonged period of time can lead to non-desirable consequences!

Have you got symptoms of emotional burnout?

On an emotional level, constantly high levels of stress can lead to symptoms including anxiety, depression, feelings of panic, irritability or mood swings. Perhaps your energy levels have decreased, and any type of physical exertion seems to require great effort.  Or maybe you find it more difficult to stay motivated and to feel happy and connected with other people. Life can feel like a chore, and your daily routine begins to feel like a list of things to get done. Perhaps your feelings of motivation, happiness and joy have gradually eroded away, leaving you feeling emotionally numb, without you being aware of when this happened.

When you experience constant high levels of emotional or psychological stress, your sympathetic nervous system remains activated for extensive periods of time. On a physiological level, this results in high levels of cortisol and nor epinephrine being released into the body, so your normal biological functioning is altered.  Constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system, or stress response, can lead to an increased risk of developing chronic physical illnesses, including hypertension, heart disease, asthma, immune and gastrointestinal disorders.

The remedy to this situation is to get an adequate amount of rest. Many people know this already, but they think of rest as any activity that does not involve work. So, they may inadvertently continue to experience ongoing worrisome thoughts, over-activity, and exposure to emotionally draining situations. What is needed is complete relief from mental activity, energy drains, and emotional entanglement.

Who it affects:

Emotional burnout occurs as a result of continuous exposure to high levels of stress. This includes mental, physical, energetic and emotional stress. Within health professionals, burnout is common because you constantly accessing your own emotional resources to help others, and this level of pressure can be relentless.  High risk professions include counsellors, healers, coaches or therapists, nurses and care workers. Stress can equally occur in any high-pressure role or can affect anyone with ongoing responsibility for other people. For example, if you are parenting children or caring for family members who have a disability or chronic illness. It is important to recognise signs of severe stress as early as possible, because the earlier it is addressed, the easier it is to reverse symptoms and to decrease their impact on your life.

There are two main areas for improvement: changing your physical exposure to stress and changing your internal reactions to the world around you.

Chronic Fatigue

Changing your External Circumstances

In terms of recovery, you can begin by seeing if there are any practical ways that you can improve your external circumstances, or if you can reduce your exposure to the source of stress.

Changing your circumstances may not always seem possible, and if you are struggling with emotional burnout, you may feel as if you are at crisis point.  Perhaps you are afraid of having to stop working in a job that you love. Maybe you want to reduce your hours but fear not be able to manage financially.  Or you are in a relationship which is emotionally draining, but it is too complicated to leave. These are very real concerns, but it’s important to realise that there are always many other options available to you. Every situation is unique, and sometimes receiving external, objective support can help you to identify your options more clearly.  It can be difficult to get the same degree of clarity from in the middle of a situation because when we are so emotionally involved it can skew our perspective.

Changing Your Internal Experience

You have a much greater degree of potential control over your internal experience than over external events, although this may be difficult to appreciate when you are feeling frazzled or overwhelmed.

Many people try unsuccessfully to control their thoughts and emotions.  This can be either by trying to change thoughts to something which is said to be more acceptable, or by attempting to stop thoughts completely using intense willpower. Unfortunately, this approach is usually unsuccessful because it misunderstands the nature of the mind.  Emotions are a process of release from the body, so when we try to stop them from occurring, they simply get stronger and more intrusive. This can lead to increased levels of frustration, inadequacy and stress, which is very counterproductive. What if instead of trying to stop the thoughts which are judged as unacceptable, you simply allowed them to be present and then to be released fully?

Instead of taking our own thoughts so seriously, it can also be helpful to observe exactly what is happening in our mind.  Often when people take the time to stop and look at the type of thoughts they are having, they are shocked at how self-depreciating they can be. Some of the thoughts and beliefs which are often found in people with emotional burnout include: I need to keep going when life gets tough, I must always put the needs of other people above myself, being of service to others is the highest priority, and it is lazy to take time off. Often these beliefs can co-exist with a drive to remain intensely busy in order to maintain our feelings of self-worth and personal value.

The key to successful recovery from emotional burnout lies in increasing awareness of your beliefs; the aspects of who you are that you may take for granted, and which can continue to inadvertently impact your well-being through your habitual patterns of behaviour.  Recognising your core beliefs, and the reactions which arise from them, is the first step to creating positive change in your life. Developing insight into the beliefs which contribute to excessive levels of stress is helpful because it allows you to create a pause between the thought and your automatic reaction.  This gives you the space to consider whether you want to choose differently.

So, if you are experiencing emotional burnout, try looking a little deeper at the hidden beliefs which may be being played out in your life.  Not only will it provide you with a deeper level of personal insight and transform your own life, but it will also allow you to be a role model and inspiration for other people too.