When I first moved from Adelaide to Paris, I regularly gave money to the beggars who stood in front of the supermarket. It got to the point where they recognised me and took it for granted that I would give money. It started to become stressful, seeing them make a bee-line for me, not to mention that you can’t walk 50 m in Paris without being asked for money. I actually started going to another supermarket to avoid interaction these people!
What I’m talking about here is empathy. I have always considered that I am an empathetic person, especially when I myself was without a job for a while and understood how difficult it can be to live in this city if your finances are low….
On a personal level, I feel that empathy is the single most important human emotion. Being able to put yourself in someone elses shoes is what prevents (most of) us from committing horrendous atrocities, understand what is making someone sad, it is what drives people to start charities and organisations, or, it is a simple as moving over on a footpath to let other people through.
However, there is such a thing as empathy fatigue. I feel that this is especially true in the age of social media where we can be bombarded daily with heart string-pulling images, or living in a big city where people are asking you for money everyday.
“Compassion burnout” is common in health and social services where it is their job to ‘feel for others’. It has been reported in the cases of empathy fatigue, that the more people have to give in their professional environment, the less they are able to connect on a personal level, in an attempt to preserve their emotional energy, and to reduce emotional stress.
Empathy researchers acknowledge that empathy is not just an emotional response, but it is also cognitive. Previously, descriptions of empathy revolved around it being a reaction to a situation. However it is now acknowledged that it involves a ‘give-and-take’ self and other-perspective.
Researchers describe the empathetic process consisting of 4 components – perspective-taking, fantasy, concern, and distress. This means that a person observes the situation, imagines that they are in the situation, establishes that it is not a desirable situation and is a cause for worry, and finally, experiences physical and emotional ‘trauma’.
The general consensus is that fatigue occurs when these components are wildly out of balance, or the reaction to emotionally stressful situations causes a shut-down to prevent further stress, resulting in an inability to deal with the situation or to feel compassion. This could be as simple as crossing the road to avoid someone asking for money.
‘Feeling’ the burn
What are the costs of empathy fatigue? Obviously the failure to respond to situations that previously induced a reaction is the major cost, however empathy fatigue can result in impaired moral and ethical judgement, physical fatigue, and more seriously, apathy and depression.
Interestingly, some researchers describe that fatigue arises from matching the wrong person with the wrong job, however this doesn’t explain the fatigue that arises from being bombarded in daily life or via the internet. A more appropriate term would be desensitization, and other studies have shown that it is not influenced by personality traits but is ‘situation variable’. Communication scholars attribute this to situations the should evoke empathy, but result in desensitization or fatigue due to a lack of an obvious solution. The example given was a child down a well vs famine occurring in a distant country. One situation has a more immediate solution, while the other seems more hopeless…..
Finally, scholars describe that people often find large-scale situations ‘overwhelming’ and over-exposure (such as from social media) can result in a shut down of empathy to avoid feelings of hopelessness.
So what is the solution?
The short is answer is: we don’t know.
In one article I read by journalists researching how they could better present news stories so not to induce empathy fatigue, the suggestion was to consider the emotional effect of the story before it is delivered, and tailor how it is delivered including what stories are either side of it. In terms of healthcare and social workers, steps need to be taken by colleagues and superiors to be trained in recognising the signs of empathy fatigue so as to avoid ‘burnout’.
In terms of my situation with the beggars on the street, I was definitely overwhelmed but not apathetic to their situation. Perhaps the mere act of recognising that I was becoming desensitized will provoke a change in behaviour, or, if people read this and think about their actions, maybe that is one way to prevent empathy fatigue.
I don’t think that there will be one solution, given, if you recall, it can be situation variable.