Compassion Burnout

The subject of compassion has been a significant conversation in events over the years. Reading the chapters on compassion in your last book, ‘In the Midst of Things,’ has given me a deeper appreciation for how complex the subject is. Recently, I’ve been wrestling with understanding the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion. I realize that what I take for “compassion” is likely empathy at best.

I work as an elementary school teacher (now all online) and am submerged in what you described previously as compassion burnout. I have poured everything I have into my students, personally closing gaps where our public school policies fall short (no support for student or family mental or emotional wellbeing), and I can see a real difference for my students. Perhaps my burnout is from reaching my limit of empathy rather than compassion. My question is: At some point could you talk more about the differences between sympathy, empathy and compassion?

I’m not sure that defining the differences between these three words will help you with the burnout you’ve described. But I see these three as progressive steps toward an effective resolution to an issue that’s causing imbalance or suffering. Sympathy is sensitivity from a distance, such as pity or sorrow for another; empathy is more personal participation, understanding, and sharing of the feelings of another; and compassion is a depth of interest that directly engages in a process of resolution.

(From the book you mention: “I think that a truly compassionate being is not someone who feels a lot and understands another’s suffering but is someone who cares enough to do the homework so as to have something valuable to offer to those who are suffering. Such care includes a deeper, general, encompassing concern for life beyond oneself, from which one has the capacity for something immediately effective.”)

Talking with a couple of old friends about these subjects last week, I was making the point that compassion involves a direct sense of responsibility within a given dynamic – crossing over the lines of sympathy and empathy to get to actual engagement, not just feeling and thinking about and listening to. Compassion often requires a more muscular, protective component that includes compensatory action, as in, “This isn’t right and something should be done about it.”

From what you describe here, it seems that that’s what you’re doing in regard to your students. You’re not sitting back and worrying or just feeling for them; you’ve taken on the project of creating a resolution. Teaching – or any compassionate work – if engaged earnestly, can be overwhelming, exhausting, and thankless, because one has to play a variety of (often anonymous) roles simultaneously: guide, parent, friend, counselor, and luminary.

That said, the problem of compassion fatigue leading to burnout arrives when one has exceeded the norms of personal investment for longer than they are used to. Usually, this is an intensifying emotional fatigue that starts to erode one’s own personal balance: it becomes increasingly hard to find yourself and the usual effective outlets for simple rejuvenation, peace, and relief. And one then begins to experience deepening distress, cynicism, a sense of being lost, or even panic. Once that happens, there’s a real danger of collapse of some kind. So, one has to prioritize carefully, creatively finding their way back to the inspirations, rituals, activities that provide regeneration. Especially those that allow you to empty out and remove yourself from the emotional and mental turmoil, as well as the physical effects. You can’t keep spending money if you’ve got nothing in the bank.

There is a component of true moment-to-moment serene balance within all this. Creating that balance involves being attentive to how much (especially emotional) investment you give while in the actual engagement; that is, “What actually helps here versus all the extra emotions, thoughts, and outward energy that wear me out and probably make no difference?” Usually, just a simple, self-contained presence with clear, steadfast intent is plenty (at least once you’ve crossed over the lines of sympathy and empathy):

Thank you for your appreciative comments and for bringing this subject into the fold here.

Painting by Pablo Picasso


  1. Galahad says:

    Thank you for those clarifications and interesting angles about compassion, a subject dear to my heart. Beyond the original definition of compassion as “a suffering with another” and if one does his homework, compassion can then become the active removal of suffering (rather than just smoothing) as illustrated so beautifully in the compassionate heart and hands of Jesus bringing not only fresh water and comfort but hope to the prisoner…
    I also think that compassion burnout can also happen when our kindness, love and compassion are abused by others willingly or not.
    I’m hoping to be able to improve my relationship with compassion, see more clearly what it requires of me in term of responsibilities/ taking more risks/ holding a longer line of care (patience, devotion, resilience) or simply taking a stronger stance.
    I will confess that I too often avoid the troubles and struggles this implies although yes there are some pitfalls to avoid in making sure we keep our serene balance and sanity in the process.

  2. J.R. says:

    Darrell, thank you for this wonderful post. It is relieving to read descriptions of the dynamics that make up “compassion fatigue” – being able to have words put to them helps me contextualize them and release stress. You have clear steps laid out here that one can actually follow… like a recipe for a remedy.

    I loved the link you shared to Piero Ferrucci’s article on beauty to help connect the dots. That should be prescribed to every working teacher, parent or caregiver! Until we all see self-care and beauty as NEEDS and respond to them as such, we’re destined to live out the same exhausting patterns and wonder why.

    “We feel irritated, nervous, uneasy, or even panicky or depressed. The need may be so deeply buried that we are unaware of why we are so upset… [People] need, for instance, solitude and silence, or nature, or time for play, or greater appreciation from others, and the chance to express themselves. And they need beauty.”

    1. I’m glad you caught that link to Piero Ferrucci and see the relevance of his suggestions (very specifically in the family of “empty out and remove yourself from the emotional and mental turmoil”). If you look at his work and the books he’s written, it’s clear that he’s not guessing. Of course, as with any recipe, one has to follow the directions precisely (instead of just throwing in whatever convenient habitual distractions that happen to be around). If one were to take each suggestion seriously, not as vague philosophical notions, and actually identify how they play out in one’s own life – solitude and silence, nature, time to play, greater appreciation from others, the chance to express yourself, and beauty – we could pick away at each in whatever free time we have.

      Probably the more difficult one is “greater appreciation from others.” And this is especially true for those who are giving more than is normal and not being recognized for the effort. That in itself, sustained for too long in overly demanding situations, will cause significant burnout, with all the symptoms mentioned in this post and more – lousy sleep and no desire for or clear recollection of even how to play, for example. People often seek therapists simply because they cannot find a friend or relative caring enough to provide sincerely attentive presence. So, we may have to go out of our way to find that (like tracking down some obscure ingredient for an appealing recipe). Or even make new friends who are more attuned to, and interested in, the actualities of our life, where it’s possible, and natural, to share significant struggles and questions.

      I like your insertion of “teacher, parent or caregiver” in these considerations. People in general are often uncomfortable and awkward around the term “compassion” and believe it to be quixotic, not realizing that it’s much more a part of our existence (either in its absence or in our efforts to provide it, even in small ways) than is assumed. Particularly for those around children, in any capacity, the obvious need to come up to another level of engagement is a serious challenge, especially because children can immediately identify any form of falseness or complacency. So there is the real need for tangible regeneration in one’s free time to stay whole, sane and enthusiastic…which gives us a better shot at “simple, self-contained presence with clear, steadfast intent” in our next challenge.

  3. R. says:

    Thank you for this reminder of the importance of beauty in our lives. I had a completely different solitary walk yesterday observing the wonders of nature more carefully, how it is so graceful, nuanced, multi layered and surprising. This reminded me of this Japanese notion you talked about: “forest bathing”. I couldn’t quite leave that place yesterday (this is my true home) and I felt so much at peace. One just needs to slow down, listen, see, bend like a bamboo towards beauty.
    I always like the practicality of your posts and simple things like a walk can become something so much more profound and healing.

  4. Mihai Tudorascu says:

    Creatively finding a way back to regenerative rituals and activities seems to require a kind of sacrifice, in moments when I look for comfort. There is a tendency to look for an easy way out, for some unhealthy escape that apparently soothes momentary discomfort but which just adds more burden to deal with afterwards. Giving up these little escapes (perhaps similar to the throwing in of the convenient habitual distractions that happen to be around that you refer to) and choosing more nurturing ingredients is a door that this article opens.

    In reading and contemplating some passages from the “Fear and Ignorance” chapter in your recent book the “existential no” that is sometimes brought into a situation was a theme that repeatedly drew my attention. And maybe choosing to say “yes” means setting aside the cravings – that I will have to pay for at some later point – and focusing instead on those more subtle, creative activities that nourish deeper parts of myself.

    From this state, short glimpses of the sometimes elusive simplicity of “self-contained presence with clear, steadfast intent is plenty” become more viscerally accessible.

    Beauty and trust in life comes from reading your writing, the subtler and larger yes we are invited to notice and to include in the step by step process for remedy mentioned in other comments.

  5. Thank you, Mihai and Guy, for your insightful additions to this conversation. I especially appreciate you taking the time to really look into and articulate your angles of perception and experience related to the initial presentation, which do help to connect some related dots. Hopefully, the next post continues to expand on the motif in motion.

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