Those in helping professions like teaching, social work, or medicine can buffer themselves from burnout and “compassion fatigue” with self-care strategies, including meditation and social support. A study of nurses in acute mental health settings found staff support groups helped buffer the nurses, but only if they were structured to minimize negative communication and focused on talking about challenges in constructive ways.
English Professor Cris Beam also studies empathy and wrote a book called, I Feel You: The Surprising Power of Extreme Empathy. She notes that there are many definitions of empathy. Some of the earliest, and simplest ones, characterize empathy as the ability to “stand in another’s shoes.” Brené Brown, who has recently popularized empathy, defines it as "feeling with people," and notes that it's a "vulnerable choice" because it requires a person to tap into something personal that identifies with the struggle of another.
Stress inhibits people’s ability to be empathetic. Zaki points out irony here. Many psychologists say human connection is one of the best ways to move past pain or trauma, the very things that keep people from opening up to empathy.
Empathy is contagious and establishing compassion and kindness as social norms can help spread it. Zaki and his graduate student, Erika Weisz, conducted a study with close to 1,000 seventh graders in the San Francisco Bay Area in which students wrote about why they think empathy is important and useful. Then students read one another’s responses, learning that their peers valued caring as much as they did. The data from this study is preliminary, but students told Weisz and her team that after learning about their peers’ empathy they were also more motivated to be empathetic.
To read more of Katrina Schwartz' article, please click here.