I Feel Like the Longer I Do This Work, the Less Empathetic I Become – Should I Be Worried?


Maybe when you first started out as a clinician, you found yourself thinking about your clients outside of work – worrying about them, wondering if there was more you could do to help, or if there was a better way that you hadn’t tried yet.

But after years of working in mental health, it might feel harder to feel empathy for your clients. You may have heard about compassion fatigue, but there is another condition many clinicians experience at one point or another – empathy fatigue.

Feeling Less Empathy the Longer I Work in Mental Health

It’s common for clinicians and other individuals in caregiving roles to experience a decline in feelings of empathy. After seeing so many people suffering, it makes sense that you would eventually become desensitized to it.

You might struggle with actively listening to clients or you might even feel annoyed or angry with clients who resist care or don’t seem to be able to “help themselves.” If you’ve gotten to the point where you feel like you’re losing empathy for your clients, what do you do? Well, the first step to combatting empathy fatigue is understanding it.

Related: Burnout in Public Mental Health Care Professionals

Compassion Fatigue vs. Empathy Fatigue

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

People in helping professions, like clinicians, doctors, nurses, first responders and teachers, are susceptible to compassion fatigue, a “decline in the ability to … act from a place of compassion.”

What is Empathy Fatigue? 

Psychologist Susan Albers-Bowling, PsyD, defines empathy fatigue as the “emotional and physical exhaustion that happens from caring for people day, after day, after day.” Over time, empathy fatigue can lead to clinicians seeing their work through a lens of numbness, distancing themselves from others, and in the worst cases, feeling like they don’t care about their clients at all.

Dr. Albers-Bowling goes on to say that empathy fatigue is a defense mechanism. It’s completely normal to experience it working in behavioral health – but it is a cause for concern. Empathy fatigue is “your body’s way of telling you to pay attention and to take a step back to care for yourself.”

Am I Experiencing Compassion Fatigue or Empathy Fatigue?

Empathy fatigue and compassion fatigue are closely related, so sometimes it’s difficult to know which one you’re experiencing. 

Empathy involves an identification with the thoughts and feelings of another person. Compassion, on the other hand, is rooted in the desire to help. The symptoms of compassion fatigue arise from the desire to help those in pain. But empathy fatigue occurs when you feel that pain acutely.

Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S, says that the goal of working with clients should be empathy – “to be with, and also separate at the same time” – but clinicians face difficulties when they get too caught up in their clients’ suffering:

“[Empathy is] my ability as a clinician to be with you, but not suffer with you. I can feel you, I can be in your world with you, I still can feel even the resonance of the dysregulation in my own nervous system, but I’m still over here. I am connected to myself.”

But when you get too involved in a client’s suffering, you start to suffer with them. After a while, your mind unconsciously triggers empathy fatigue, a defense mechanism designed to protect you. After all, if you no longer feel empathy, the suffering you see every day can’t continue to hurt you.

Overcoming Empathy Fatigue

If you think you might be experiencing empathy fatigue, here are a few ways you can begin to heal.

1. Recognize What’s Happening

The first step to awareness (and eventually healing) is recognizing what’s happening. Don’t judge yourself or the experience as good or bad, just acknowledge that it’s happening.

2. Practice Mindfulness

Try to keep your attention on each task that you do throughout your day. By staying present, you’ll connect to your body’s signals. Practicing mindfulness also helps you to develop other coping skills.

3. Take Some Time off Work 

If you’re able to, take some time off, even if it’s just a day or two. Better yet, make sure you’re taking regular vacations, at least a week or two each year. If you really can’t take any time off, try to incorporate several two-minute “micro-breaks” into your daily routine.

4. Ask for Help

Therapists need therapy, too. If you’re struggling with connecting with your clients or doing your job to the best of your ability, please don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll learn to manage stress and your emotions better, and will have better relationships with not only your clients, but your friends and family, as well.

We Want To Help You Combat Empathy Fatigue

Region Five is your single point-of-access to behavioral health clinician training and supports in the Greater Tidewater Hampton Roads Area of Virginia. If you feel that lessened empathy is compromising your ability to be there for your clients, clinician trainings can help you to refresh your skills while also increasing your feelings of empathy.

We offer online and in-person clinical, diversity and medical trainings, as well as a library of past training videos for employees of Community Services Boards located in Southeastern and Coastal Virginia. Our Training Center is available to clinicians, qualified mental health professionals, and their respective leadership.

Ready to learn more?

View and download training videos and see upcoming training events on the Region Five Outpatient Counseling and Clinician Training page.

Browse Blogs by Category

Stay Connected to Region Five

Share This