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  • Writer's pictureBarbara - Keys to Resilience

The Myth of Compassion Fatigue

The idea that Compassion Fatigue is a problem for people in the caring professions has had a lot of promotion in recent years. That's probably because it’s true that, over time, some of us can become less compassionate, less kind and more cynical in our work and personal lives, because of the nature of these personal or professional caring responsibilities.

Now many researchers are suggesting..

Compassion is not the culprit.

In fact, it's Empathy that depletes our energies and sets us on the path to burnout.

But Empathic Distress Fatigue

doesn't quite roll off the tongue in the same way, does it?


We already know how Empathy can deplete us. If you’ve ever walked out of the cinema, feeling drained or exhausted after a particularly emotional movie, you know this is true. Think of any drama about true or realistic traumatic events. Schindler’s List. The House of Sand and Fog. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

It can take some time to recover, right?

You get it.


The Path to Burnout The simplest way to describe Empathy is that it is our own visceral response of feeling someone else’s emotion. Our nervous system acts as a mirror, and we experience emotion along with the other person. And if that emotion is one that leads to suffering, it can be exhausting. Distressing even. And what if we are unable to relieve those negative emotions in the other person, or to resolve them in ourselves.

What if our bodies are left holding those exhausting emotions, and more, each and every day.

Repeated Empathic Distress Empathy Fatigue Burnout


Why Compassion is Energising, not Depleting

Despite all this, we need empathy. It is a crucial component of Compassion. Compassion starts with Empathy, with recognising someone else’s suffering.

To activate Compassion, we must go a step or two further.

By adding the Motivation and Willingness to alleviate that suffering, we have the power to transform our experience from Depleting to Energising.

This motivation lights up new areas of the brain – the action centres – so we feel more in control, more ready to respond, and more focused on the other, rather than on ourselves.

Compassion (Empathy + The Motivation to Act) leads to positive pro-social emotions, such as care, concern and even love for others.

These growing positive emotions now energise us, open our creativity, and give us the tools to more skilfully respond to others in need.

Compassion can resolve those negative emotions and restore our own energy through positive emotions.


Wielding the Magic of Compassion

There’s so much more to say about Compassion, which we'll continue to explore next time

There’s more on the way, but for now, are you feeling Curious, Intrepid or All-In?

Here are some ways you can explore Empathy Fatigue and Compassion.

I'M FEELING CURIOUS (I’d like to dip my toes into the Compassion Pool)

Check out these articles The Conversation: “Stressed? Running on empty? It’s not Compassion Fatigue” Greater Good Science Centre: “What is Empathy?”

I'M ALL-IN I'm up for an immersive experience

Join me for a lunchtime masterclass

Self-Compassion as Self-Care to Short-Circuit Burnout

Wed 10th Apr 2024, 12:30 pm - 1:30 pm AEST

  • Discover practical strategies offered through Self-Compassion to regain balance, prevent exhaustion, and short-circuit burnout, and 

  • Understand the importance of including yourself in your own Circle of Compassion. 

Barbara, smiling, with hiking pack on back

Barbara is an enthusiastic traveller, teacher, mentor and, above all, a life-long learner.

She founded Keys to Resilience to inspire a compassionate revolution in the way we value, support, and uplift those who work to support others' well-being.


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