A psychologist’s theory of “rational compassion” can help fight burnout from nonstop bad news

A man reads a newspaper featuring the news following a disputed referendum marred by violence in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Catalan leaders accused…
A man reads a newspaper featuring the news following a disputed referendum marred by violence in Barcelona, Spain, Monday, Oct. 2, 2017. Catalan leaders accused…
Image: AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti
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It’s hard to read the news these days. As I write this, wildfire rages uncontained in my old hometown of Santa Rosa, California, and other parts of Sonoma and Napa counties, taking out friends’ homes and familiar haunts. We’re barely two weeks out from the shooting massacre in Las Vegas, and hurricanes have devastated Puerto Rico, Florida, and Texas. Revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment have opened the floodgates for women across industries to share devastating stories about their abusers. My heart can barely take it.

If you’re like me, the only way to cope with the weight of so much tragedy is to go numb. But that numbness can also lead to gnawing guilt. If we don’t empathize, does that mean we’re losing our humanity?

As it turns out, empathy may be overrated—or at least inaccurately held up as a gold standard of mental health. In fact, according to psychologist Paul Bloom, empathy can do more harm than good. In his book Against Empathy, he makes the case that empathy can cause us to identify with people more like ourselves at the expense of those who are different. For example, the emotion can lead white Americans to direct their attention disproportionately to tragedy in Western Europe, while overlooking the Middle East.

Empathy also leads us to narrowly focus on causes that benefit a small few rather than a larger group. “It’s because of the zooming effect of empathy that the whole world cares more about a little girl stuck in a well than they do about the possible deaths of millions and millions due to climate change,” Bloom told The Atlantic.

The solution, according to Bloom, isn’t to try to force oneself to feel empathy—it’s to understand that empathy is not necessary for doing good. He’s an advocate for “rational compassion”—basically, taking actions that are calculated to do the most good for the most amount of people, such as donating to a particular charity that’s known for its effectiveness. The motivating factor here needn’t be deeply-felt empathy, but rather a general moral concern for others’ well-being.

Kristen Lee, lead faculty for behavioral science at Northeastern University in Boston and the author of the forthcoming book Mentalligence: A New Psychology of Thinking, specializes in studying self-care and resilience. She agrees that we must be careful to watch for “insularity,” as she calls it, lest we hoard concern only for those “on our own little island.” Lee also says we should be careful not to project our own emotional experiences in the face of tragedy onto others. “What can happen sometimes is we can over-project, what we call the White Knight phenomenon, othering people, and treating them as though they don’t have the resources, that ‘they need me,’” she says.

It’s unrealistic to expect ourselves to feel every tragedy deeply, or to respond equally to all of them. In fact, too much empathizing can lead to compassion fatigue—a syndrome that often burns out first responders and other caregivers. When all you do is put the welfare of others first, your own internal resources can deplete to dangerous levels. To some extent, compassion fatigue can happen to civilians, too.

“It’s that sense of exhaustion and depletion often times connected with symptoms of burnout, which can lead to depersonalization and demoralization,” Lee says. When we head toward burnout, Lee explains, the amygdala—that almond-shaped structure in the brain that regulates fear response—gets activated, producing a lot of cortisol. As a result, “we may not be in the place where we’re listening to our rational brain,” impairing our ability to take care of ourselves, let alone help others effectively. Over-consuming news in a state of empathy can also cause us to share misinformation, as we hone in on perceived pain instead of trying to confirm the facts.

Kriss Kevorkian is a contributing faculty member in the Master of Social Work program at Walden University, where she teaches classes on trauma, crisis and disasters. “When we empathize with somebody we’re giving so much of ourselves,” she points out. Eventually, you have to “turn off the noise.”

You don’t have to feel guilty about achieving some emotional distance from the news, she says. “It’s important to maintain healthy boundaries, practice self-care. It’s your life. Time is really precious.” If people find you selfish, she says tell them, “’Yeah, I am, because I come first.’”

Self-care might sound like a cliché, or a luxury that only those with disposable income can put into place. But Lee suggests that self-care can be practiced on a very basic, necessary level. She recommends “a strategic plan” that includes good sleep hygiene, physical movement, getting out in nature, connecting with others, and making sure you have a strong support system in place. This is part of Lee’s research on “collective efficacy,” the idea that “When you do well, I do well,” which extends the theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura.

“It’s this notion of moving from me to we,” Lee says. “If we start in a place of deliberate, intentional self-care with the notion of sustainability, you can stay grounded, not get caught up in the toxic weeds.” That means you can be more effective and available to others when you want to be.

Lastly, self-care can also mean setting boundaries around how much tragedy you can personally take in. After all, if your goal is to stay informed and helpful, what good can you do to anyone curled into a ball of pain, aching for others?

Perhaps the solution is to start approaching the news from an active, rather than passive, stance. When we sit in front of our computers or televisions, fixated on the suffering of others, we’re bound to feel disempowered. Instead, we can start looking at the news as a way to become more informed about the world so that we can be strategic about how to focus our energy. “Learning about what’s happening and finding out the most high impact response,” Lee says, “is a great way to channel passion and anger.”