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Mindful : August 2017
Leipzig, Germany, now calls empathy a “precur- sor to compassion,” but notes that too much of it can have negative consequences. In an interview with the Cognitive Neuroscience Society, she explained, “ When I empathize with the suffer- ing of others, I feel the pain of others; I am suf- fering myself. This can become so intense that it produces empathic distress in me and in the long run could lead to burnout and withdrawal. In contrast, if we feel compassion for someone else’s suffering, we do not necessarily feel their pain, but we feel concern—a feeling of love and warmth—and we can develop a strong motiva- tion to help the other.” What’s more, Singer said, even the neural networks underlying empathy and compas- sion are different; the former increases painful emotions, while the latter is associated with positive feelings. These findings have a lot of implications for burnout, a distinct kind of exhaustion often characterized by loss of motivation, stress, anger, depression, and dissatisfaction. As a med- itation teacher, I often lead retreats for caregiv- ers—mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, spouses, nurses, doctors and hospice workers, therapists, chaplains, and many more. People in positions or professions of caregiving can be particularly vulnerable to burnout, as they tend to empathize with and take care of others without necessarily refilling their well through self-care. Ellen, who works at a school for students diag nosed with mental illnesses—spanning mild anxiety to severe schizophrenia—is prone to burnout at her job. “I am often in a classroom full of emotional expressions, including anger, anxiety, muteness, screaming, throwing chairs, tuning out with an iPod, tears, and more tears,” she tells me. Ellen is passionate about her work and committed to her students, but describes herself and her fellow teachers as getting “pummeled” by the student body’s resistance to rule enforcement. Unsurprisingly, Ellen explains that she not only feels frustration and fatigue but often also a sense of hopelessness. When I asked Ellen how she finds meaning each day or if she relies on any self-care routines to replenish her energy, she responded by telling me that she is renewed by the sense of emotional openness between her and her students. “The only real hope I could see is when those kids sincerely felt that you cared about them and believed they could be better and saw some potential in them.” And in addition to offering students encour- agement and support, Ellen admits vulnerability 76 mindful August 2017 insight