When Compassion Hurts: An Empath’s Guide to Balance.

Via Toni-Ann Yates
on Feb 15, 2016
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Denise Sebastian/ Flickr

It is rare that compassion has a price.

It is rare that caring and wanting to be a shoulder or a stepping stone for someone else, wanting to reach out and be available actually takes something away from us.

But the truth is, for some people, that line is a blurry mess between taking care of others, and taking care of ourselves.

As empaths and bleeding hearts, we have the potential to damage ourselves when we absorb the worries and trials of others. This is especially challenging when our hands are tied—when we can do nothing to help, yet our hearts break for the difficulty of others.

Organizations and charities play on these heart strings to drum up support and solicit donations. It makes perfect sense: show footage or photos of animals being abused, or children starving in third world countries, and people like me are sick to our stomachs, writing out checks. At one point, I was donating to more than half a dozen charities a year while I held my breath for my own mortgage to clear.

But it easier to say that we can’t afford to donate than it is to say that someone we love that their problems are not ours to solve. We have all been there—watching someone make a mistake while we stand watching helpless on the sidelines.

A beloved friend of mine married twice, both times to men who took advantage of her incredible kindness and pursuit of passion. As she embarked on the second marriage, my circle of friends clung tightly to one another in a deep hope that our concerns were unfounded. When she cried that it had fallen apart, that she had failed twice in marriage, my stomach flipped and turned with sickness for her broken heart. But I could do nothing, as I could do nothing when she married him.

My compassion and empathy for her had disturbed my own peace with anger and anxiety on her behalf.

I am sensitive to the vibrations of other people’s troubles—my heart goes out of my chest and into the world. A friend with a crisis is a crisis I absorb. And sometimes, this absorption can obscure my own peace.

So where do we draw the line, if there is one—between our own suffering and the suffering of others? What do the spiritual gurus and intelligent forefathers of thought have to offer to the empaths of the world to avoid this pitfall? How do we find balance?

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~ Jack Kornfield

A dear friend of mine told me once that I had to create a “thicker skin.” At first, I was insulted. I felt this meant I was too sensitive. But he meant exactly that, pointing out that it was both a blessing and a curse to feel life so deeply—and the experts seem to agree.

Learning to develop a filter, to understand what serves me so I can serve others, and knowing what hurts me, rendering me helpless, is key. Turning away from information that upsets me is my right. I stopped watching the news more than a decade ago, and reading the newspaper was quickly thereafter.

If I am paralyzed by my empathy, then my compassion for others is useless.

Building this skin takes time and conscious effort. If I feel my heart racing at someone else’s struggle, I know I need to step back before I can fairly analyze how to be supportive or helpful. A broken heart is not strong enough to carry a burden for someone else.

Being selfish—in the best way possible—is another helpful concept if we wish to keep our peace while being of benefit to others. The empty vessel cannot fill the cups around it. Understanding that my own soul-health is paramount to being able to show compassion and kindness is a lesson I’ve had to learn over and over.

Time to be in solitude is something I have learned to carve out for myself. The need to quiet the energies around me, to focus inward, through meditation and yoga, allows me to be selfish, reflective, and recharges me. Without this, I would exhaust myself searching for stores of emotional energy I didn’t have to give.

Accepting and assigning boundaries is another key to survival and achieving balance. It is incredibly easy for someone who feels compelled by compassion to take on the lonely, lost, depraved, and unhappy of the world. There are certain situations that really cannot be solved, even by the most compassionate or empathetic of us.

Discovering the need for my own peace in balance with the desire to help others, has become an essential journey for me. This means knowing when to say no, when my help comes at a greater cost than I can bear, or when to step back from the urge to save someone from their own fate—especially when they take no steps to save themselves. These experiences have all been glaring opportunities for my soul to detach from someone else’s pain even while I still recognise it. In doing so, ensure I preserve myself first, before I seek to help others.

Boundaries are difficult to erect and even harder to keep, but my impulse to cry for someone else cannot overwhelm my underlying peace.

Compassion is as much about own peace, as it is the good of those around us.

When we struggle in a difficult relationship our first lesson is to understand that compassion and forgiveness are just as valuable in keeping our own hearts protected, as they are in serving others.

The peace we obtain by not allowing others’ actions or situations to affect us so deeply that we lose our own footing is a truly altruistic spiritual goal.

Learning to keep this balance is learning to master our ability to both love and feel peace, despite our bleeding hearts.


“…for there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.” ~ Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


Author: Toni-Ann Yates

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Image: Denise Sebastian/ Flickr



About Toni-Ann Yates

Toni-Ann Yates graduated from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania in 2002 with a few degrees she’s not using. She taught high school English for several years until resigning to a life less political in 2007. She has since worked as an actress, waitress, event sales representative and coordinator, health club receptionist, and theatre education director. She has come back to the search for peace while writing and studying yoga. She has a lovely husband and two children—one of whom has extraordinary needs and quite a story—and a great dog.


12 Responses to “When Compassion Hurts: An Empath’s Guide to Balance.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~ Gautama Buddha….Please tell me from which scripture of Buddha’s teaching this comes from.

  2. elephantjournal says:

    If Jack Kornfield said it, it must be true…am I right?

  3. Christine says:

    The problem you describe in this article has nothing to do with giving too much or being too supportive. Carrying someone else’s burdens for them or solving their problems is neither supportive nor helpful, and balancing these tendencies to “over give” with periods of retreat may provide temporary relief for the empath but do nothing to resolve the core issue: the empath’s lack of ego boundaries. One key question is whether others are actually crossing your boundaries or perhaps your boundaries have bled over onto them in a suffocating grab of their burdens? Who do you need to say no to? Those in personal crisis would be wise to avoid “empaths” as described here altogether and seek true support from those steady and strong enough to be able to be there in times of need remaining independent and separate without these destructive swings of burden stealing/problem solving and abandonment. I support and applaud your focus on self-care and times of solitude. But if you find friendship so draining, perhaps you’re doing it wrong rather than doing it too much.

  4. Padma Kadag says:

    No. Because Jack Kornfield said it doesn't make it accurately Buddhist all of the time. ( I have not read any of Mr. Kornfield's work). The Buddha rightfully taught the truth that we automatically care more for ourselves than others which is why samsara, on a very ordinary level, exists. No masters, I am aware of, ever practiced "loving one's self first in order to love others". Our tradition uses terms, for no better translation: selflessness, tearing down the hut of self, everything from the self is concept and therefore subject to dissolution, not permanent, no self.
    I suggest you read the Bodhicaryavatara " A Guide to a Bodhisattva's Way of Life" by the Indian master Shantideva.

  5. JohnH says:

    Well said Tori-Ann. There is a Tao, a balance, to compassion. This is why the flight safety announcement tells you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others. I would venture to guess that much of our “over empathizing” contains a strong dose of control – trying to fix others so we don’t have to witness their karmic sufferings. Yes, we need to find our own compassion before we can venture into the “pain intensified by imagination and prolonged by a hundred (million) echos.”

  6. Toni-Ann says:

    Thank you John… I thought of including the flight safety analogy in the article, it speaks so clearly to the sentiment. It is amazing how much control and compassion can be confused when we want to avoid unpleasantries in life’s experiences.

  7. Toni-Ann says:

    Since both of the quotes were added post-submission, I must say that think the sentiment fits the competent well, it’s the source that is incorrect.

  8. Padma Kadag says:

    Tori-Ann…It is inaccurate to say the Buddha said something when there is no record of him saying it. The recent need demonstrated by those to call themselves Empath and tell the world, has nothing to do with Buddhist principle. There is nothing in Buddhism which advocates for the loving of one's self, to cherish one's self, or to generate compassion for the self before others. Shakyamuni Buddha did not leave the palace in order to learn how to love himself. He renounced the royal life to put an end to suffering. Empathy has nothing to do with putting into action in order to propagate self love nor self loathing. Empathy is the selfless taking on of the other's suffering, which is Buddhist method.

  9. Toni-Ann says:

    Thank you for telling me this… I want to understand the sacred words of the Buddah well. I did not include this quote or its (inaccurate) source myself, and I am very interested in learning more about how Buddhist method does handle the incredibly endless compassion and great kindness while still accepting our very human flaws. -Toni-Ann

  10. Padma Kadag says:

    Elephant Journal has added quotes of the Buddha which are not only not actual quotes but are not Buddhist in principle. This is unfortunate that they look up quotes from the Buddha online and grab anything they can. Jack Kornfield apparently is the Buddhist authority for EJ.

  11. Padma, The misattributed quote was an editorial oversight. We corrected it. ~ Caitlin

  12. Bijou says:

    Thanks for this, perfect timing as I've been struggling with being overwhelmed by general suffering- time to stop watching the news. I don't know if it's so much an ego boundary problem as Christine said but more of a desire for other people to be happy and/or being attached to outcomes; I think what she's referencing is more about codependency but I can see how it can be difficult to separate empathic feelings from unhealthy patterns of relating. One of the differences lies in what they're looking for- an empath isn't hoping to secure love by making someone dependent on them. Also, I'm pretty sure the Buddha had a sense of humor.