Which Is It? Empathic Distress or Compassion Fatigue?

Table of Contents

→ Discerning Empathic Distress v. Compassion Fatigue
→ Q&A: How do you do it?
→ Josh Kornbluth’s Empathy Revolution in “Citizen Brain”
→ Navigating the Early Days of Management

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Which Is It? Empathic Distress or Compassion Fatigue?

Two great articles by two of the leading thinkers in the mental health and wellness space recently came out within weeks of each other. Each on their own is worth a read (links included below) however if you stop and consider them together, there is the possibility for confusion and contradiction, which I hope to clear up here. I’ll share the story of this, recap the pieces for you along with my observations and additional context with the help of some of my Empathy SuperFriends and a conversation we had on Wednesday January 10 about these pieces. Here we go…

I had one of those “kick me” moments on New Year’s morning. Not because I overdid it on the eggnog or herring. It was an “I wish I had thought of that” moment. I was reading a guest essay piece in The New York Times by Adam Grant about the concept of empathic distress. It struck me that this is exactly what I wrote about in a December newsletter on the overload people are feeling given all the events going on in the world.

Empathic distress, as Grant defines it, is hurting for others (that’s emotional empathy) but feeling helpless to do anything about it (the distress!). That inability to help creates the short-circuit of overload or overwhelm as the Navigating to a New Normal participants put it.

Here’s the short video reel from December that includes empathic distress…

Grant goes on to describe the work of psychologist Susan Silk to help figure out what you can do and who to help. Silk recommends imagining a dart board with the people directly affected by something in the center. The rings moving out from the center are the different communities that are affected by the event. Identify which community you belong to and then seek help from the rings further out from where you are while offering to help and support the people closer in.

What else struck me in Grant’s piece was his position on compassion fatigue, a topic that Jamil Zaki just wrote about in the Jan/Feb issue of Harvard Business Review. Grant cites the work of neuroscientists Olga Klimecki and Tania Singer who found that the idea of compassion fatigue - that you are basically burned out from caring - was a misnomer. It wasn’t the act of caring that burns you out, it’s the empathy that feeds into it.

Cut to Zaki’s piece where he writes about what managers need to survive today and the dangers of compassion fatigue - burnout from caring too much. Zaki argues for a practice of sustainable empathy which involves self-care, empathic tuning and building healthy mental boundaries and practices, people will be able to be better leaders.

Part of Zaki’s article is about the danger of emotional empathy and carrying the feelings of others. That’s definitely a risk for empaths and highly sensitive people. Instead, studies have found employees want managers to show concern rather than carry their feelings. This sounds closer to cognitive empathy and ultimately compassion. Seeing that someone may need help and then taking action of some sort.

Ok, great, but what does it all mean?

The big takeaway for me as I reflect on these two articles is to learn how to master the empathy skills you are developing. There’s a scene in one of the Henry Cavill Superman movies where he’s learning to use his super powers and he’s overwhelmed being able to hear and see so much. If I recall, the movie’s villain, General Zod, is overcome by this momentarily as well. The point is, they have to learn how to control what they are taking in. In the practice of empathy, it’s important to manage what’s being taken on so as not to overwhelm but instead to inspire action.

For myself, I need to check-in and ask myself if I’m being overwhelmed by emotional empathy and if so, practice some self-care to dissolve the emotional energy. And I can think of a few times when I’ve experienced acute empathic distress - on January 6, 2021 watching the US Capitol under attack and also witnessing the Sept 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. In both instances I felt for the people trapped inside the buildings and wished I could spin around, turn into a super hero and zoom to their rescue. But that’s not my power. My power is to understand where people are coming from, connect the dots and bring that to others.

Compassion fatigue is what I was starting to experience and wrote about in Ch 18, The Trappings of Success, in my book, Tell Me More About That. Studying the impact of the Great Recession on everyday Americans, I found myself drained hearing all the stories of struggle and resilience. And then I met Gregory who revealed that he was homeless, followed by bumping into Tex and his big silver belt buckle who claimed the Recession was fake news.

An excerpt from that chapter is available for you to read here…

What About the Empathy SuperFriends?

Alongside Maria Ross, I co-founded a group of empathy practitioners who meet online once a month to discuss the latest research or articles on empathy (ahem) and anything else that we can do to support one another. We started about a year ago and people attend when they are able.

In this most recent gathering I brought up the two articles to get people’s thoughts. I won’t go into specifics of who said what as it was a very spontaneous conversation but there is growing awareness of the fatigue related to empathy and caring. What’s interesting is that empathy is still a squishy topic that people don’t always take seriously so there can be a “what, again?” attitude among some workshop attendees if they are having to learn about empathy at work.

That’s because empathy remains misunderstood, even though countless studies are demonstrating the value of empathy in the workplace when it comes to creativity, sense of belonging and loyalty (ie, retention). But imagine giving someone a new skill without the knowledge and practice to use it wisely. You end up like Superman up above.

Another concept the Empathy SuperFriends brought up is “compassion fade” - essentially as the number of people in need increases, our motivation to help can decrease. This is different from compassion fatigue or empathic distress but it does speak to our natural abilities to care and take action.

When I think about storytelling, whether it’s sharing insights from research, working on an empathy talk or spinning a good yarn, finding the one person that represents a group or that can give voice to many is highly effective. It’s like the marriage of the head and the heart. We know over a million people died from Covid-19 in the US. The story that gets us is the individual. That’s what gets us to care because we are able to have empathy and imagine ourselves as that person.

Which Means…

Whether it’s fade or fatigue, compassion requires empathy in order to exist. Learn like Superman how to control this special power - the empathy muscle. Have self-awareness of when it’s time for a rest and recharge and what you might need for yourself to make that happen. And finally, keep at it, giving yourself grace when needed.

Let me know how it goes and please share these tips with a friend.

Q&A: How do you do it? How do you keep having empathy with others?

It can be a challenge, if I’m being honest. I’m fortunate to have spent the past 16 years in the insights industry where a growth mindset and being in the learning zone is the expectation rather than the exception. It’s enabled my curiosity to sit forward. I also try to have boundaries in my mind where I recognize that other people have the right to their own opinion, beliefs and behaviors, as long as they don’t infringe or threaten me. Whether you are trying to convince your neighbor to be ok with your new home addition or persuade a colleague to go along with a new scheme at work, being able to see things from the other side is always beneficial in formulating your actions and response.

Columnist Bret Stephens just had a piece in The New York Times where he, a never-Trump Republican now Independent, imagines what motivates the supporters of Donald Trump in the current presidential election. Stephens starts out the column recognizing that if you want to defeat an opponent you need to understand what is galvanizing their supporters so you can counteract it. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, I’d encourage you to read it with an open mind and from a place of curiosity.

“Citizen Brain” Can Save the World!

I’m always a little skeptical when someone reaches out to me on social media trying to sell me something but in this case I’m glad I clicked on it to learn more. It was a promotion for a new stage production called “Citizen Brain” from monologist Josh Kornbluth.

My Empathy SuperFriend, Maria Ross, also a Bay Area resident, shared my enthusiasm and we made a night of it. Great pasta dinner in North Beach and then off to Club Fugazi for the show.

Empathy Advocate Maria Ross and Empathy Activist Rob Volpe about to see Citizen Brain at Club Fugazi in San Francisco. January 10, 2024

I had heard of Josh but hadn’t seen his work before. As a result, I wasn’t sure what to expect other than the description of how his time in residence at UCSF Memory and Aging Center gave him insight into the neural networks that enable empathy and he had the realization that this could be what saves the world! (I’m already a convert on this concept so it was a no-brainer to attend.)

The show was great and there were some genuine laugh out loud funny moments, which is a good thing when you go to see a humorist doing a monologue. At one point, Josh describes the start of his effort to have empathy with someone. He takes a deep breath and then asks himself what it would be like to be them. That deep breath is the “curious breath” that I talk about. It was so fun to hear empathy described on stage in such detail. Even hearing the word “empathy” used on a performance stage was a revelation.

Josh also has a series of Citizen Brain videos that you can watch. There are five and counting. This is the first one about brain circuitry and social justice.

After the show, Maria and I hung around and waited for the chance to say hi to Josh in person. We had a great conversation about his show, complimented him on how spot on it was and the depiction of empathy was excellent. And of course we took a group photo with our newest Empathy SuperFriend!

CHECK THIS OUT: Navigating the Early Days of Management

John Schrag, a leadership coach, trainer and facilitator wrote some great guidelines to setting up your team for success if you are a manager. While it was part of a reflection on “what I wish I knew then that I know now” by managers, it has application for managers of all experience levels.

One of the things he calls out is the importance of active listening.

And, he gave a call-out at the end of his piece for readers to look at my book, Tell Me More About That as a great resource to improve these vital skills.

Please take a look at his piece, it has some great advice. And thanks to John for including me!

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Reading Between the Lines delivers of-the-moment insights into empathy and human behavior; expect practical tips on using the skill of empathy in everyday life and exclusive updates to keep my community close. All on a biweekly basis.