Empathy Drain: A Reality for Many Teachers

by | Jan 21, 2019

Empathy. Most people view it as an only positive trait. I know I used to.

When you have empathy you are able to understand others by sharing in their feelings and experiences. This positions you as someone open to others, their successes and challenges.

Empathy can be a wonderful trait, a powerful way of connecting with others and a truly positive means of understanding what those around you are going through. 

However, empathy has a negative, less discussed side, that affects teachers, caregivers and everyone whose responses to others are impactful.

Teachers are empaths (mostly)

Ask any teacher why they entered the profession and most will speak of their desire to make a difference in the lives of children.

As we unpack the desire to step into this role we clearly see empathetic traits that naturally align to the field of education. Teachers care for others and their success. They see a need to share perspectives and spread understanding of the plights of others. 

Empathy is beneficial in the classroom

FOR STUDENTS: Empathy positively impacts school and classroom culture by prompting others to consider their actions and the consequences of said actions on others. It encourages everyone within the classroom and school to think beyond themselves and helps build meaningful relationships.

FOR EDUCATORS: Empathy allows teachers to understand the impact of the tasks and pressures placed on students and better “read the room”. It allows them to respond authentically and thus deepen teacher/student relationships. And, empathy helps to empower teachers to see and understand each student as an individual.

What it really means to be empathetic.

To truly exercise empathy at a deep level means that you internalize and experience the feelings of others in all situations. This isn’t selective to just the times when others are joyous and celebratory and it isn’t merely being a shoulder to cry on when times get tough. This is feeling all the joy, fear, anxiety, frustration, sadness, and overwhelm that others are feeling. It is being “in it” with others, both the good and the bad.

Empathy drain in teaching

Now, imagine a classroom full of students all responding to the increased demands placed on them in education, to the pressures and challenges involved in growing up and the bombardment of all outside influences vying for their attention.

And now imagine (maybe you don’t have to) that you are a teacher in that classroom who is highly empathetic. Who feels all those different emotions and tries each day to respond thoughtfully to all their students, to understandingly support their classes and to, on top of everything else, also teach.

On a side note: Empathy can become detrimental in highly intense situations. If someone is in dire circumstances – hurt or in an emergency situation, an incredibly empathetic person can become frozen. They internalize the panic and fear of the person who needs help and can become unable to respond. Now, these are severe scenarios, but more and more educators are unfortunately placed in severe scenarios.

An answer to empathy drain

Author Paul Bloom takes the stance that empathy is the problem in our society (I am not taking this stance as it is clear that so much good also comes from empathy), I merely offer his counterpoint to empathy which is the concept of “rational compassion”.

This call to action from Bloom refers to the distancing of oneself from the emotional experience of empathy. He calls for a moral decision-making process with the well-being of others still at the center but dissociated from our own feelings.

But, is it the right answer?

Within the realm of education, “rational compassion” would indeed be an answer for the educator who is overwhelmed and drained by the constant taxation of empathy, however, is it the answer we want? Should we strive to remove our own feelings from classroom happenings? Are we longing to dissociate ourselves from our students’ lives? 

Another answer to empathy drain

Author Dr. Brené Brown states that it is rare that response is what can help a situation – it is the connections we make that make a difference. Brown’s concept speaks to the value of keeping empathy intact and not dissociating our feelings as Bloom suggests.

Instead of removing empathy from our connections with others we can get in touch with what this really means and how this impacts us. We can seek balance in our lives. We can, as educators, check in with ourselves and how our empathy impacts us. Because reaching out to other empathetically means reaching within ourselves and connecting with that similar feeling, it’s important that we remain “tapped in”.

This is where teacher resilience becomes incredibly important and you can see why. 

Empathy drain is real, in many ways it plays sibling to compassion fatigue and occupational burnout, and we can learn to build the resilience around it.

Building teacher resilience is increasingly becoming less a niche idea and more an undeniable necessity. Click To Tweet

This is what Joy in Teaching is all about. To learn more about building teacher resilience check out other articles, offerings, or the Joy in Teaching books


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