How to Avoid Empathy Burnout

When Allison Basinger got back to her office, she lay down on the floor, as though she’d suffered a migraine or toughed out a marathon. In fact, she had just finished a session with SAFEHOME, a Kansas City-area organization that supports teenage survivors of domestic violence. Under its auspices, Allison visited local middle and high schools to educate students about unhealthy relationships and teen dating violence. That day, like many others, a student had come forward with a horrific story of her own abuse, and Allison had done what she could to help. Afterward, laying there, she returned to her own struggle, one that many people in her line of work share. Once you open yourself to the suffering of others, it can feel impossible to turn off their pain.

Following a disaster, it’s easy to pick out firefighters, police officers, and EMTs: They are the ones running toward the resulting chaos while everyone else runs away. Helping professionals—in fields such as social work, psychotherapy, and hospice care—are the emotional counterparts to first responders, gravitating toward experiences the rest of us avoid. Basinger, for one, felt the pull within weeks of starting work at SAFEHOME. A deeply religious person, she had struggled to understand her own suffering, which included an abusive relationship and bullying severe enough for her to switch schools. SAFEHOME gave it a purpose: She could prevent the pain of her past from invading others’ futures. As she puts it, “You want to rescue them from going through those things for the first time.” Her experience is not uncommon. Surveys of career helpers find they are more likely to report family histories

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