Preventing Burnout: From Empathy to Compassion

Humans are social beings.

We need each other to survive. This is why our brain interprets rejection as physical pain. Luckily, evolution has also given us the ability to feel as other’s feel.

In Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence, he mentions that emotions are contagious. Our brains are actually designed to pick these emotional signals, and manifest them in our bodies. Psychologists call this emotional contagion for obvious reasons.

I was acutely aware of this when meeting one client. I introduced myself and built rapport quickly. Soon enough both of us were laughing and getting along well.

One of his subordinates suddenly called him to an urgent task. We quickly resumed with discussion, but I noticed feeling quite different. I felt a bit uneasy and anxious though I couldn’t say why exactly.

Soon I realized this was emotional contagion in action.  Seeing my client’s emotional cues, my brain was quick to mirror them in my body.

This process of emotional contagion is so natural, that we may frequently take them for granted. According to the French monk, Matthieu Ricard, emotional contagion turns to empathy when we realize we’re feeling someone else’s emotions.

Basically, evolution has allowed us to easily feel other’s emotions and empathize. Cool, right?

Sadly, empathy may have a downside when done too frequently. Feeling other’s pain for too long has been known to stressful or depressing.


In one fascinating experiment, people witnessed someone getting electric shocks (fake of course). When the witnesses’ brains were examined, the parts linked with physical pain also lit up.

Compassion over empathy

Feeling as others feel can hurt. When done too long, it becomes overwhelming.  The solution can be simple though.

Ricard suggests in his book Altruism that compassion is the key to preventing empathy-linked pain.

In a similar experiment, people trained at compassion meditation had their brains scanned. They found out that exposure to people suffering did not activate the pain centers of their.

Instead, the parts of their brains linked with maternal caring and support lit up. This is important news especially for helping professionals. Nurses, doctors, and social workers are only but a few that face suffering on a daily basis.

It helps to know that though feeling as others feel may be tire, compassion doesn’t.

So when you feel overwhelmed from someone’s hurt, remember  to cultivate compassion. Engaging in spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation helps a lot.

Are there times you’ve suffered from empathizing too much? Feel free to comment your thoughts below.


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