when empathy backfires: a full body and brain burnout
I am someone with a lot of empathy. I am able to hold people’s experiences and really empathize with what they are going through. It is a beautiful quality that helps me as a mom, wife, friend, coworker and overall human. But when left unchecked that same wonderful quality can lead to burnout, exhaustion and eventual resentment.
It has taken me years to recognize that empathy is one thing that holds me back from asking for help. It creates distance between my wants and needs and unconsciously prioritizes the needs of those around me. I am very busy making sure that the people in my life have support and feel taken care of without realizing how it is impacting me.
not everyone feels the way I do
It was my understanding that EVERYONE deeply struggled with seeking support because they were concerned about the wellbeing of others. I thought everyone considered all the angles of how their wants and needs would impact their relationships with those people in their life. It has only recently come to my attention that this is not how everyone’s brain works.
Recently in therapy I was sharing some things that had been weighing heavy on my heart (as one does in therapy.) I actually found myself very concerned with how my emotional heaviness would weigh on my therapist. I kept thinking of how she must hold so much for so many people and I didn’t want to be an added stress on her. When I told her how I was feeling she didn’t shame me or laugh it off, but rather she made me feel comfortable that this is something that might need some love and attention.
Even as I write this, it feels like a foreign concept to me that someone would just ask for what they need and allow the people in their life to either accept, decline or counter their wishes. I’ve spent most of my life ‘mind reading’ and making assumptions on people’s capacity and abilities, assuming they could not support me because they have their own busy lives.
I am realizing that by asking for my needs to be met only when everyone else’s needs have been satisfied, leaves me with nothing in the tank and burned out. When you put yourself in someone else’s shoes it is hard to get around the fact that almost everyone has something happening in their life at any given moment. Our lives are filled with joys as well as challenges and if I wait until everyone is thriving to express my needs then I will be burying them for a very long time.
but it feels selfish
Amazingly I have discovered that the people in my life are more than happy to support me and meet my needs. I nevertheless still feel guilty that my needs overlap with theirs and I don’t want to appear selfish, or “too much”. So where does that leave me? Once again, by prioritizing the needs of others over myself I am burying myself in emotional labour and support. I already know that eventually the weight will crush me and I’ll be left picking up the pieces of myself while also feeling terrible for not being able to carry the needs of others anymore.
So I’ve recently started trying something new, doing things to prioritize my needs. You may notice that I reference boundaries A LOT on this blog. I do this because it’s something that is difficult for me AND it truly makes a difference in my life. So the more I share about how I am implementing boundaries and making space for myself, then maybe it will give others the opportunity to do the same.
Here are some actions that I am taking in service of supporting myself (and by proxy by family, friends, co-workers etc.)
1. When I reach my limit I let my people know.
When I’m feeling overwhelmed I will tell the people close to me. This is important for two reasons.
- So they can support me when I need it
- They know that they will need to find another person to support them and that I cannot hold anything for them. This is a difficult boundary for me to hold, as empathetic listening is my default.
2. I lovingly remind my people that I am wildly sensitive
When I am feeling burned out and exhausted I can become overwhelmed really easily so I ask that they put kid gloves on when talking to me about popular media or news items especially. My heart is too fragile in those times to hold and empathize with the world outside of my own life.
3. Trying to get back in touch with things that bring me joy
I try to prioritize things that I know bring me joy. I love reading outside, going swimming, watching funny movies, playing board games, going for nature walks. When I am feeling overwhelmed I intentionally make time for these things. I make them a priority.
I do my best to journal every night. It is one of the biggest tools to support my mental wellness (in addition to medication and therapy). When I am feeling burned out and overwhelmed I find it easy to try and talk myself out of journaling.
PS. Everyone’s journaling practice will look different, I find it most helpful to write about how I am feeling at that moment or how I felt that day. Intentionally slowing down and really feel my feelings. 90% of the time I journal I cry, and it is so cathartic.
I will be honest, stepping out of the support giving role and into the person who needs support feels really uncomfortable. I feel selfish and self-centred and it is really difficult to do. But it feels like a necessary means for self preservation. In order for me to show up powerfully in my life I need to have support, I need to let people take care of me. It is exceedingly vulnerable; but ignoring my own needs isn’t serving me. So I guess it’s worth a shot to try something different.
Have you ever experienced burnout? Do you consider yourself someone with a lot of empathy? Do you have a hard time prioritizing your own needs? Feel free to share in the comments.
when empathy backfires: a full body and brain burnout
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