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Taking Care Requires Care As Well

Disclaimer – This is a social and professional observation earlier shared during the tenure as a council member of WICCI Mental Health Council ( 2021-2023 ).

Prosocial behaviour is an action which is carried out to help someone in need regardless of the helper’s motive. It helps build relationships and allows society to function. This can also include helping others, obeying the rules, conforming to socially acceptable behaviour, and even cooperating with others. 

Where prosocial behaviour has many benefits, it can also cross a very thin line which moves into the domain of Empathy distress fatigue. Here let’s try and understand firstly what exactly empathy is- according to science it is the ability to understand and experience the perspective and feelings of another. Empathy has been linked to prosocial behaviour in adults and children.

When we experience a cognitive overload of emotions, we tend to go towards empathy distress fatigue or previously known as Compassion Fatigue. According to Baumeister and Vohs (2007) The source of compassion fatigue is altruistic; Caregivers with Compassion Fatigue were initially motivated by the prosocial aim of reducing the suffering of others by the means of their empathic care. The consequence of this form of empathy or altruism, however, is pathological since this compassion impacts the physical and emotional well-being of the caregiver.

In a post lockdown era and the understanding of Fatigue being multifaceted , the Prosocial behaviour of individuals saw a dip and resulted in suffering of anxiety and depression. Individuals at community level and in helping professions have been facing exhaustion. This exhaustion has led to burnout in engaging in defining pro social behaviour in an active way. People are engaging in sympathetic care and showing signs of Empathy Distress Fatigue. Yes ! even helping can cause an overload on our mental and emotional well-being. 

Research by Brené Brown indicates that “empathy distress fatigue” results from an inward-focused emotional response to others’ needs. For example, if you have a tendency to insert yourself into someone else’s story rather than hearing their story as their own, then you might struggle with empathy fatigue.

She highlights use of language to understand what a majority are struggling with

  • Healthy empathic stance: “I honour your struggle.”
  • Unhealthy empathic stance (not actual empathy): “I own your struggle as my own.”
  • Clinically and while observing healthcare workers , social workers and police personnel during duty hours and even beyond the signs that emerge 
  • Feeling overwhelmed. I can’t seem to function due to someone else’s pain.
  • Feeling emotionally drained. I don’t have the emotional capacity to extend more care.
  • Difficulty sleeping. My thoughts about your experience leave me tossing and turning.
  • Difficulty concentrating. My mind is ruminating about situations outside of my control.
  • Physical exhaustion. I don’t have the energy to be present with you.
  • Apathy. I’ve become numb from overexposure to others’ pain.
  • Irritability. I can’t give attention to one more thing. Get out of my way.

Feeling emotionally disconnected. I’ve taken on your pain as my own and no longer understand your perspective

As a mental health professional even within our community as professionals we have been facing and coping with this , the more rational and objective ways to cope have been discussed as self care practices , setting professional boundaries and even taking breaks. Translating the same to help non mental health professionals cope along with ourselves is 

1)Get Perspective

According to research by Theresa Wiseman, one defining attribute of empathy is perspective-taking. This means to “see the world as others see it.” Without perspective, you don’t have empathy at all, and you’re more likely to fall into empathy fatigue. Perspective-taking protects you against empathy fatigue because it helps you focus on the other rather than on your own emotional response and ownership of their pain. Gaining perspective requires you to be outward-focused, ask questions, and seek understanding. Perspective-taking welcomes you to understand and honour another’s story without making it about yourself.

2)Refrain from comparison

One way to fall victim to empathy fatigue is to compare someone’s pain to someone else’s worse pain, including your own. Initially, it may sound like you’re attempting to be supportive or provide perspective, but it tends to dismiss someone’s genuine feelings.Comparison, especially when trying to be empathetic, turns your focus back on your discomfort with someone else’s struggle—or worse, puts you in a position of judgement toward the other person’s pain. In either case, comparison creates disconnection and can overwhelm you with the “weight of the world.” 

 Instead of comparison, try mentally putting your internal biases on a shelf. Turn your focus outward toward the person you’re connecting with. Ask questions to gain a greater understanding. You make others feel truly heard by asking questions and listening with intention. Ultimately, this focus gives you greater freedom to connect with others without the added strain of measuring their pain against yours or others.

3)Feel your emotions

One of the keys to protecting yourself against empathy fatigue is self-awareness and recognizing your own emotions as you show up for the needs of others. This starts with allowing yourself to feel your feelings and not ignore them. Prioritising “me time” and creating space for yourself to feel your emotions is especially critical if you regularly expose yourself to the needs of others. Creating space might require you to say no to obligations or even certain relationships that require you to overextend yourself. Front-line workers and caretakers are especially prone to empathy fatigue due to the counter-intuitive coping mechanisms they tend to adopt to deal with the everyday stress of showing up for people.This might include avoiding their feelings and becoming numb to their surroundings. However, this increases stress and fatigue and can lead to burnout over time.

Broadly beginning with well established practices to avoid burnout combined with this gives the empathy distress fatigue an arms length distance and encourages the individual to 

Be mindful of engaging in  prosocial behaviour without expecting the outcome 

Not allowing others and their own emotions overwhelm the scenario in the present environment 

Equipping oneself with mental , social and professional resources to respond to themselves if they feel fatigued by – 

Taking Breaks 

Engaging verbalising emotions 

Awareness of how the environment is outside of their control and they are doing enough to support in the circumstance 

For everyone engaging in prosocial behaviour it becomes important to identify the prevalence of distress , take steps in time to withdraw from the environment causing it and seek mental health professional support . Even for mental health professionals as a n occupational hazard this distress can be experienced seeking peer supervision and therapeutic support can only help them help others better.

Reach out for help, as it builds you up as you find yourself on the journey of being empathetic.

We at Tatava Studio Simplifying Wellness are open to all personnel’s and even fellow Mental Health professionals.

Learn more and check out Boundaries of Communication in Social Settings

To connect further and enroll in the program.

Aarti Ahuja
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