For many years, I was under the impression that harnessing my natural empathy would make me a great therapist. I’ve always identified as an empath (for better or for worse) and have struggled many times in my work and personal life to protect my energy and keep burnout at bay…
A teacher of mine introduced the notion that having empathy in the work we do with clients can be harmful not only to the therapist, but also to the client. Allowing our empathetic parts to run the show is a recipe for burnout and vicarious traumatization. Holding compassion, on the other hand, comes from a place of Self Energy (an IFS term for highest self, source energy, core self, connection with god, etc.).
The veterinarian Dr. Trisha Dowling succinctly says, “Compassion does not fatigue.” This was an “aha” moment for me! Compassion for, unlike empathy with, cannot become drained because it is a quality of Self.
My work now is to get to know my empathic parts and connect with them, showing them Self. Now I know that I can actually ask my empathic parts to soften back and make space for Self Energy to be present when I’m with my clients or when I see something painful out in the world that makes me want to collapse into sorrow. My empathic parts just might need to be heard, maybe they have concerns that if they don’t show up front and center, I might not be “a good therapist” after all.
What are some ways you implement compassionate energy instead of empathy during difficult moments? Can you feel the difference in your body between empathy and compassion? Let me know your thoughts!