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Balancing Empathy with Self-Care

Updated: Jan 13


- Teresa Jacobson, DBH, LPCC-S

March 16, 2022



In the wake of the collective traumas of the COVID-19 pandemic, the protests for human dignity and freedoms, and the onset of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as distress already being experienced individually; suffering is at an all-time high. Feeling as though life is unpredictable and dangerous causes much distress, which is why emotional safety is paramount.


One way to ensure emotional safety and work towards inner peace is to balance empathy with self-care.


Empathy plays a crucial role in allowing others to feel understood and cared for. “This capacity requires an exquisite interplay of neural networks and enables us to perceive the emotions of others, resonate with them emotionally and cognitively, to take in the perspective of others, and to distinguish between our own and other’s emotions” (Riess, 2017). Empathy is a critical part of caring for others, but it is important that it does not result in an imbalance of caring for one's self.


“We empaths are helpers, lovers, and caretakers who often give too much at the expense of our own wellbeing” (Orloff, 2019). “Research suggests that our mirror neuron system (a part of the brain responsible for compassion) is hyper-active, which can burn us out.” Over-extending our help or absorbing the misery of another isn’t healthy or lasting for others, as it places us in sensory-overload and can even shut us down.




Cuff and colleagues (2014) reviewed the broad concepts of empathy in literature and more concisely define empathy as: “an emotional response (affective), dependent upon the interaction between trait capacities and state influences. Empathic processes are automatically elicited but are also shaped by top-down control processes. The resulting emotion is similar to one’s perception (directly experienced or imagined) and understanding (cognitive empathy) of the stimulus emotion, with recognition that the source of the emotion is not one’s own.”


Researchers differentiate empathy from sympathy, which is a construct that can lead to feelings of pity. Empathy can be used as health care professionals as a guide validating how a client/patient may feel, whereas sympathy would sound more like “I feel so sorry for you.”


“Empathy is a complex capability enabling individuals to understand and feel the emotional states of others, resulting in compassionate behavior” (Ries, 2017). “Empathy requires cognitive, emotional, behavioral, and moral capacities to understand and respond to the suffering of others.” Compassion is not empathy, but empathy leads to compassion. “Compassion is a tender response to the perception of another's suffering.” Whereas self-compassion is a tender response to our own suffering.


Healthy boundaries related to empathy can be set by maintaining a strategic self-care plan to avoid compassion fatigue, or burnout. A solid self-care routine can help our ability to maintain inner peace and well-being, while remaining empathetic to others.


Self-care is broadly defined as “engagement in behaviors that support health and well-being” (Lee & Miller, 2013). By utilizing self-care we can offset or balance other stress in our lives and promote resilience Should we draw on the idea of maintaining balance to protect the integrity of ourselves, we understand the purpose.


The goal of self-care leads us back to self-management of stress, chronic illness, and prevention of further diseases, promotion of overall well-being. “This includes attempts at basic regulation of the body and mind through sleep hygiene, good nutrition, an exercise regimen, building a supportive matrix of relationships with one’s community, family or peers and those activities that promote creativity, pleasure and rest and relaxation” (Lee & Miller, 2013).


Self-care is a “proactive and intentional process, instead of a reactive and ad hoc one” (Lee & Miller, 2013). Prevention-minded individuals can be proactive in their design for a self-care routine to build resilience, manage distress, as well as any compassion fatigue that may be present. Remember that self-care is not selfish. Self-care is not a luxury. Self-care leads to balance and self-preservation, which are states that can keep us centered and feeling an inner peace despite external turmoil.


Consider the following as you create a proactive and intentional plan for self-care:

  • Define self-care as much more than exercise. Ask yourself what you need to be your most constructive effective, and authentic self?

  • Stop using the word “should”. The word, "should” elicits judgmental self-criticism. Use the same lens for yourself that you use for others.

  • Weave self-care into your entire day. Take intentional breaks mindfully throughout the day to not only reset, but refresh. This can aid clarity of thought and efficiency.

  • Ask yourself what purpose the inner critic serves. Is it useful? Will it help you move forward? If not, then shut it down or re-frame with a more accurate and helpful narrative.

  • Learn a life of appreciation and gratitude. What do you value? Honor that value, purpose, and what you bring to others.

  • Celebrate successes. Celebrate what went well. What was particularly satisfying in the last week, last month?

  • Find your tribe. Surround yourself with like-minded people who have similar values.

  • Use difficult realizations and mistakes as learning opportunity. We can’t go backwards, so take what you would do, and do it, propelling you forward.

  • Refresh and Energize. Sounds simple, but it isn't. Pay attention to when you need a more sleep. Take restoration breaks each day, which can be filled with mindful breathing, stretching, walking break, climbing up and down a stairwell, eating a healthy snack, or having lunch with a friend.


It is also important to avoid self-neglect, self-sabotage, rumination, and comparison. Individuals high in empathy can sometimes give all compassion and energy away, which can be to their detriment. Procrastination and avoidance can also lead to perpetuating problems. Rumination can increase depression, and distraction can lead to being unproductive and feeling bored (and sometimes useless). Notice these behaviors and bring yourself back to the present toward a more balanced-self.

Unhealthy habits and lack of self-care can perpetuate distress. Perhaps there has not been a better time to notice your habits, make changes, and invest in yourself to continue to be the most authentic and centered version of you.


 


Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio and Kentucky adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth/Video visits. A strength-based, person-centered multi-cultural counselor, with an existential philosophy, Teresa can be reached by emailing teresa@steppingtowardserenity.org, calling (513) 206-3026, or visiting



 

References


Cuff, B.M.P., Brown, S.J., Taylor, L., and Howat, D.J. (2014). Empathy: A review of the concept. Emotion

Review, 0, 1-10. DOI:10.11777/175473 914558466


Lee, J.J. and Miller, S.E. (2013). A self-care framework for social workers: Building a strong foundation

for practice. The Journal of Contemporary Social Services. 94(2), 96-103.

DOI:10.1606/1044-3894,4289


Orloff, J. (2019, September 11). The art of self-care for empaths and sensitive people.


Riess, H. (2019). The science of empathy. Journal of Patient Experience, 4(2), 74-77.

DOI:10.117712374373517699267.


Su, A.J. (2017). Six ways to weave self-care into your workday. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from

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