Empathy Fatigue is All Too Real

Feeling empathy for others’ pain is innately human, but it can be stretched too thin. Here’s why we get numbed to horrific events—and how to preserve our tenderness and our desire to help.

Understanding the causes of outrage exhaustion would satisfy more than academic curiosity. For if we did, we might overcome it, sustaining public pressure for changes that prevent recurrences of violence. We might also sustain genuine care and compassion for those in pain, including ourselves.

“Mindfulness trains us to think about our thoughts as ‘just thoughts,’ including the thought that tragedies and outrage are part of life or that trying to effect change is hopeless.”

Steven Lynn, Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Binghamton University

How Your Mindfulness Practice Can Help

Mindfulness practice can keep us engaged and actively compassionate because the practice helps us remain with the present moment. And there is a steadiness in the present. “Much of what we fear resides in moving our thoughts from the present moment, where there is often no immediate threat, to a future marked by fear, doubt, and uncertainty,” Lynn said. “We create space for compassion by accepting our fears and watching them play out on the stage of our minds.”

We don’t have to continually fan the flames of our outrage to remain engaged—doing so would likely lead to burning out, which leaves us unable to help at all. What we do need is to cultivate a compassionate awareness of the present moment in order to sustain action toward a more just and peaceful future. Compassion practice can serve as a foundation, protecting us from accepting tragedies as inevitable, while motivating us to ask: How can I show up in this moment? What impact can I have?

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