June 28, 2018

How Good-Hearted people fall into Empathic Distress.

Altruism is a balancing act.

Each of us has the capacity for altruistic acts. They may be reflexive and reactive (grabbing a person standing next to us from an oncoming car) or long-term (providing care to a family member or as a health care professional).

In each case, altruism is a selfless concern for the well-being of others, and is a part of our humanity. But, despite the goodness of altruism, there is also the notion of “too much of a good thing.”

The balancing act of being altruistic and not falling into empathic distress requires concentration, awareness, and attention to our intentions and motivations around these acts. We must continue to question the benefit or harm we may be causing ourselves and the person we are serving.

It may be hard to imagine how a good intention, and seemingly “selfless” act can become unhealthy or even toxic. Which is why it’s vital for us to be mindfully altruistic—the art of being aware of ourselves and others while serving them.

Altruism does not refer to a religious doctrine, but a humanistic endeavor where we put others’ well-being above our own.

For those in caregiving roles, altruism does not mean to “fix,” or to “save,” or even to “help.” Altruism refers to seeing our own humanity in others and supporting their sense of autonomy and their own healing process, without expectation.

If our egos or ulterior motives (sense of accomplishment, praise, financial) get in the way of our altruistic acts, we end up hurting the person we are serving, as well as ourselves, and we may lose our balance and fall off the rope. You know you are dangling or have fallen off the rope when you are chronically fatigued, and have feelings of guilt, resentment, and irritability. We also tend to shut down or become numb to others’ emotions or life situations—which is when altruism turns into empathic distress.

One way to stay on the rope of mindful altruism is cultivating compassion.

Compassion, in comparison to empathy, is more galvanizing and motivates us toward being of service to someone in pain because compassion generates feelings of love, kindness, and concern; it’s a sense of connectedness.

Interestingly, brain imaging reveals that empathy triggers the pain regions in the brain, whereas compassion stimulates the regions of love and connectedness. We tend to go toward others when feeling compassion (feeling for) versus moving away from and avoiding the other because our empathy (feeling in) may have turned into empathic distress.

Compassion allows us to identify with and relate to the other’s suffering while (and most importantly) acknowledging we are not the other, nor their emotions. This creates space and groundedness in order to cultivate compassion and action.

For me, having a full-time therapy practice requires that I constantly pay attention to and mind my feet on the rope of altruism, leaning more toward compassion and less toward empathic distress—the latter results in a much harder fall (burnout, chronic stress, apathy, and job dissatisfaction).

Where I continue to lose balance and sometimes fall hard is on the rope suspended in my home with my sons, two of whom are my nephews I have been raising since my sister was murdered almost 11 years ago due to domestic violence.

One of my aha moments in my own therapy was that we cannot have compassion without boundaries.

We need to separate ourselves from others in order to be of service to them. My boys and I, at times, have been swimming in a pool of empathic and traumatic distress with no lifeguard on duty, each of us trying to survive on our own, and leaving me unable to guide them to safety. Over the years, I have yearned to “fix” or “save” them or the situation into which they were placed, and when I could not, empathic distress and altruistic pathology arose.

These days, I practice more mindful altruism by cultivating compassion for them and myself, like in my therapy practice, using these three staples:

1) maintain a daily meditative and yoga practice (including Tonglen meditation);
2) create a boundary using compassion where I am extending love and concern without a need to fix or save them or myself; and
3) cultivate joy in these relationships—we tend to bond much more deeply and in a more enduring and sustainable way through pleasurable activities.

May they be of benefit to others on the balancing act.

“When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole.” ~ Rachel Naomi Remen


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Megan Swan

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