What caregivers should know about empathy and their own mental health


If you’re a family caregiver you know that empathy is an important element of the support you provide your loved one. Empathy allows you to understand their situation and identify with the emotional side of their concerns.

We commonly think of empathy as walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. Or seeing something from another person’s perspective.

The ability to empathize with others is important in everyone’s life. Without it, you have a difficult time forming the attachments that help you establish and maintain relationships.

At its core, empathy is a way of developing a connection with another person. With it, you’re able to bond with someone and build trust. When it’s missing, a relationship can feel strained.

Empathy helps you to be patient and demonstrate compassion. It’s a critical skill that some people come by naturally, and others need time and practice to develop.

There are at least three styles of empathy that describe the possible ways you respond to others.

One kind is cognitive empathy – your attempt to understand another’s problem and be supportive.

Another kind is emotional empathy – something that comes from your heart and is actually heartfelt. Not only do you understand another’s problem, you feel it yourself. In extreme situations, you may assume it.

A third type is empathic compassion – your desire for your friend’s or loved one’s situation to get better.

Empathy matters for caregivers. It’s helpful to examine how these different types of empathy affect not only your relationships with loved ones, but also your own mental health and well-being.


Why does caregiver empathy matter?

Empathy is the foundation of the caregiver relationship you have with the person in your care.

It inspires you to help.

It also benefits the person who feels it. When you extend empathy, it’s satisfying and can help you feel good about yourself.

Caregivers need a combination of cognitive and emotional empathy; however, the nature of caring for a family member makes it challenging to keep your emotions in check. Your familiarity can give rise to an overabundance of emotional empathy. You may experience a stress reaction or physical discomfort in response to your loved one’s situation. If this reaction lingers and overwhelms, your own health is at risk.  

If your empathy is balanced, you’re able to communicate appreciation for the situation and extend genuine concern. You can feel the worry of your loved one’s problems without actually assuming it.




It’s possible to care too much — how emotional empathy can overwhelm

Caregiving is demanding. Physically, caregivers face long hours, the risk of injury, and heavy lifting. Emotionally, the work is often draining and isolating. For family caregivers, the pay is nonexistent.

Emotional empathy can grow into too much empathy and have consequences for a caregiving relationship.

Author Susan David, PhD writes about empathy fatigue. When you’re caring for someone who spends a lot of time agonizing or brooding about their condition, it leaves little room for anyone else’s concerns. Empathy fatigue contributes to caregiver burnout. If you become frustrated to the point of avoiding your loved one, they can feel isolated and abandoned.

In cases where care recipients have dementia with poor behavioral and emotional functioning, research shows that their caregivers, especially those with high levels of emotional empathy, experience declining mental health as well.

And likewise, when caregivers suffer mental health issues and burnout, the quality of life for people in their care may deteriorate.


How caregivers can develop balanced empathy and safeguard their mental health

Balanced empathy is a form of self-care.

Psychology professor Jamil Zaki PhD, Director of the Social Neuroscience Laboratory at Stanford University states, “Empathy has to start at home. You can’t just give of yourself emotionally until there’s nothing left.”  

This means there must be some balance with empathy, and that empathy skills can be improved.

Develop self-compassion. Think of a problem you have and how you feel about it and then imagine a friend coming to you with a similar struggle. You’d probably show them more generosity and patience than you’re allowing yourself. Seeing the difference can improve your empathy skills.

Extend kindness to someone when you’re feeling depleted. A small act of kindness toward someone can be an energy boost when your tendency is to withdraw. This could be as minor as a smile or a quick text of support. Think of a candle flame and another candle being lit from it. The first flame isn’t diminished and now that two candles are burning, there’s more light. This is the power of kindness.

Suspend judgment and disagreement. When you don’t agree with your loved one, it’s tough to not cast judgment. Your inclination may be to correct them or offer advice. To keep your empathy in balance, start with being a good listener rather than trying to fix their problem. Being attentive and present lets your loved one know you’re there for them. It also helps you avoid internalizing the situation and feeling consumed by it.

Broaden your comfort zone. Try learning something new to experience the feeling of not being able to do something well, or do it at all. You might feel inept or clumsy and be humbled by it. This is a good exercise in understanding the struggles of others.

Establish boundaries with your loved one. Emotional boundaries help you define personal responsibility. Your care recipient’s choices are ultimately their responsibility, not yours.  It may be your obligation to provide information and support, but it’s important to accept that you cannot assume final responsibility for their decisions. Boundaries are a form of self-protection. It may be necessary to occasionally say no to a loved one’s demands. Setting healthy limits can help you avoid feeling guilty.

Make a habit of letting go. It’s natural to feel depressed about someone else’s loss or illness, and experiencing the feeling helps you to offer support. It’s important to recognize, however, that you don’t have to absorb the situation as your own. Assuming someone else’s pain does not alleviate it for them, and it can prove harmful to your own well-being. Practice letting go.




How in-home care service benefits family caregivers

If you’re a family caregiver, chances are you’ve experienced empathy fatigue and feeling overwhelmed. Check out a recent SeaCare blog on knowing when it’s time to hire a professional caregiver.

If you’re helping to manage a loved one’s care via long-distance, you might experience additional stress due to lack of in-person contact. Providing emotional empathy from afar is challenging and may include feelings of guilt for not being present and anxiety over not getting a complete picture of your loved one’s situation.

For your own peace of mind and well-being as a caregiver, arranging in-home assistance can be a lifesaver. Contact us today to learn more about our customized approach to your loved one’s care. 


Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.







Katie Wright writes about aging and senior wellness from Bellingham, WA. You can read more about her here.




If you or a loved one you know are looking for additional support during this time and are interested in scheduling a free in-home assessment, please contact SeaCare In-Home Care Services today! A SeaCare family member is standing by. 425-559-4339