Avoiding Empathy Burnout

Katrina Murphy
3 min readJul 17, 2023

For years I struggled with burnout as a result of my emotional capacity for feeling empathy.

I was exhausted.

Any time someone expressed sadness, frustration, hopelessness or a myriad of other emotions around their circumstances, I was invested emotionally right along with them. How is it that this benchmark of emotional intelligence was creating havoc in my own life?

Over time, I learned that not all empathy is good. Not all empathy is healthy. There are different types of empathy and because I can easily empathize with others, I have to be VERY careful what that empathy looks like for me.

The Basics: Definition

Clinically, empathy is “the ability to sense other people’s emotions, coupled with the ability to imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling.”

According to Brené Brown who focuses on elements of vulnerability, “Empathy is communicating that incredible healing message of ‘You’re not alone.‘”

Differentiate: Empathy vs Sympathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is a feeling of pity or sorrow. In Kate Thieda’s article in Psychology Today, she discusses Brene Brown’s differentiation of empathy from sympathy using four attributes originally discussed by Theresa Wiseman:

  1. To be able to see the world as others see it (AKA: putting our own “stuff” aside)
  2. To be nonjudgmental (judgment of another person’s situation discounts the experience)
  3. To understand another person’s feelings
  4. To communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings ( rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse”, try “I’ve been there, and that really hurts” or “that sounds difficult, tell me more…”

Types Of Empathy

Not all empathy looks and feels the same, just like not all sadness or happiness is the same. Empathy is important and the type of empathy that you express or experience matters as well.

The three types of empathy that psychologists have defined are: Cognitive, Emotional, and Compassionate.

Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand how a person feels and what they might be thinking. Cognitive empathy makes us better communicators because it helps us relay information in a way that best reaches…

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Katrina Murphy
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Mindset Coach and Mentor | passionate about helping people reconnect to who they are so they can live with meaning, peace and freedom.