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Empathy Vs Compassion: Empathy Fatigue is Causing Counselor Burnout

Artwork By: Pieter Weltevrede

The phrase “compassion fatigue” is a commonly used term to express the burn out many helping professionals experience at some point in their career. However, it’s really a misleading term from the Chakra Psychology perspective as the answer is embedded within this common phrase. There is a huge difference between compassion and empathy, and what most people are experiencing would be more aptly termed “empathy fatigue”.

Empathy is a function of the second chakra, the relating mind. This is the mind of give and take, exchange. The second chakra is the water element, it is here we feel what the other feels and allow our own water to respond. Have you ever noticed how water takes the shape of whatever container it is in? It responds to the vibrations of life, carrying with it the message of all it has experienced. Water is healing and purifying, offering to cleanse the other through its own essence. In the same way, as helpers sit with the other, they allow themselves to feel the clients experience, taking the shape of the other as a container for the emotion. They offer a degree of healing and cleansing as the person shares their traumatic experience with another in a way that is received and held.

While this is a beautiful exchange, it is unsustainable as a healing and helping professional. While your water may offer the cleansing balm for another, the problem is that in turn you absorb the “mud” that was cleansed. This can bog you down over time and create a need to be constantly cleansing oneself. Often the therapist may have many rituals or frequent meetings with other professionals to talk about client cases or they may just start to feel tired and burned out over time, not understanding why their desire to help others is seeming to weigh them down. Many accept this as an inevitable cost of the helping field, but it does not need to be!

Water Molecules Impacted By Thought and Intention

So just to recap, empathy is a state of exchange where one person feels into another’s person’s experience as if it was their own. They share the same state of emotions for a period of time. Over time, this constant experience of feeling others traumatic moments can take quite a toll on the helping professional.

What is the difference between compassion and empathy? And why would I make such a big deal out of words?

Language is the way in which we attempt to communicate our experience of the world to one another. While it is imperfect, as we cannot a taste through a word, it is the important to use the right words for accuracy of what we’re trying to express. Some words are so ambiguous, so over-used and inappropriately used that we fail to see that we rarely convey to another what we mean by the word. Love is a great example of this, when you say love and I say love, we may mean very different things! So, in this way, it is important we define what compassion is and how it is different than empathy.

Compassion is one of those over-used and mis-used words from its true meaning. Compassion is a fourth chakra feeling, this is an extremely different state of consciousness than the empathy of the second chakra. Compassion does not enter the realm of possibility until we can touch the fourth chakra, and as many of you know, the majority of people are primarily in the first three chakras. This means very few people are actually using compassion. There is of course a 4th micro chakra of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd chakra which gives a variation of compassion, but true compassion can not be accessed until one’s ego surrenders to the higher vibration of love consciousness.

It is important to realize how refined a state of compassion really is. The Buddhists spend their lives meditating to reach it, the Bhakti yogi’s sing their hearts out in Kirtan hoping to touch it. True compassion is a state of unconditional love. This love is such that nothing need be different than exactly how it is. The person in front of you doesn’t need to change or grow, they don’t need to fix anything or heal in order to be so fully loved. Furthermore, I need to underline that it is a state. This means it is not dependent on a particular object of affection. A mother may touch the first true unconditional love when her first child is born, this is a taste of the compassion state, but she must learn to maintain that state for all beings all the time in order to enter that state of consciousness. While we all have moments of unconditional love for a mate, if that mate were to leave you, could you maintain that state of unconditional love? It is through this experience of loving someone or something this way, that we can experience the peak experience of this state. However, we must not be attached to the object of affection and instead use this example as a beacon to guide us to this state of consciousness permanently.

Paramahansa Yogananda and Anandamaya Ma, beautiful Indian saints

So, you see that we are talking about a state closer to the saintly people of the world than to the average person, even a helping professional. Now, this is not said to discourage, in fact a helping professional may be more likely to reach this state in this lifetime, because of their empathy and propensity to want to help others! In fact, this is the very population of people who I want to hear this message! A state of compassion is a state of peace in exactly how things are right now. You might reject this saying, but the world is in so much pain! How can we be peaceful knowing this? Yet the state of compassion begins a state of devotion, it is the ego surrendering itself to love completely. For every moment we spend in fear or selfishness or wanting to fix others, we are filling the world with this anxious and fearful energy. A state of perfect compassion loves all beings and sees each being as a soul having this human experience. There is an appreciation for the perfection of life beyond what the human mind can perceive. They understand the ignorance in others who have fallen into rage or selfishness, and they compassionately see the human experience without turning to hate, anger, rejection, or condemnation. In this state, the realization that any human being could be the self, given a set of circumstances, and so the compassion is endless. This isn’t to approve of hurtful behavior in others, it is simply an acceptance of what is, exactly how it is from a loving heart. There in an inclusivity of all beings into life and an understanding that all can be healed with the balm of this compassionate love.

From this state of experience, we do not get burned out from a helping relationship. The element of the fourth chakra is air, which is always expansive. It may momentarily take the shape of a container, but it does not hold and carry the impressions, in other words, it doesn’t need to feel and experience each person’s memories. Instead, it is free and light, always returning to its expansive state. The air releases whatever is in it, supporting each being without even the recognition of its presence. It offers a silent and invisible presence of consistent love, all encompassing, always available, it is limitless. In this way the helping professional hears the success of one and the trauma of the other from the same state, neither change the helper, and yet the consistent love, acceptance and validation is present, nevertheless. Others may experience the counselor as “a breath of fresh air”, giving flight to their wings where they can learn to soar.

The presence alone of a person who is in this state of compassion is calming and freeing. This helps others receive new life and revives their heart. This is not the constant cleansing of the wound but the freedom from it, the ability to soar high above these experiences of the human condition in such a way that they are free again to truly live! One’s life needn’t be held down to the constant tending of old wounds. As a helping professional, one can sit with many difficult experiences without being laden with the heaviness seen in empathy. This preserves the helper for many more years and many more people they can be available for. When the therapist is burnt out, the healing that can happen is extremely limited.

If the counselor themselves has had a history of trauma, then it is especially important to pay attention to this difference because the memory of the client may so easily trigger one’s own personal memory. While at first it may seem like a benefit to relating and empathizing, over time it can be very draining to have your own old wounds constantly picked at, not to mention it holds you there in that memory not truly allowing flight.

So how do we get from empathy to compassion?

This is a big personal work, one that shifts us from the turbulent emotions of life to the peacefulness of heart-centered existence. It is a spiritual shift as much as a psychological one. Changes like this happen with effort and guidance, there is no magic bullet. These higher states of consciousness are what I believe counselors are truly ready for, as they have spent a lot of time in the psychological waters. Ideally, through integration of their own psyche they are ready to take flight into higher states of being.

Mindfulness meditation, breathing exercises, mantra and wind-instruments are excellent ways to encourage movement towards the air, the breath of life- the heart. Most importantly are purifications which help to cleanse us of past memory and bring the 3 bodies (physical-emotional-mental) together into a unified whole. Through the process of regular/seasonal purifications one can be free of the unnecessary suffering of the lower chakra minds and soar to new heights of consciousness. Oftentimes, higher chakras do not open because to do so could be dangerous, as too much negative energy (apana) is built up in the form of hurtful memories. Purification cleanses this, which triggers the system to know it is safe to go higher. Also, the focused effort and intention for higher consciousness is an important aspect of personal growth.

If this speaks to you, consider joining one of our seasonal purifications or reach out to schedule a chakra assessment or astrology reading and begin to identify the blueprint of your path.

*Our next Purification is June 6-9, 2024, I hope you'll join us

~Galeet Farrow, M.A., LPC

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