“I Don’t Want to Hear It”: Compassion Fatigue and Feeling Personality Types

“Nothing can wear you out like caring about people.”

S.E. Hinton

When People Spend Too Much Time Caring

There’s a text on your phone. You know the name all too well. It’s a casual friend who you’ve tried to help, but there seems to be no bottom to the need. You sigh and are already considering excuses for not texting back. But friends – even casual friends – are important, and you prefer not to let anyone down. You seem to feel exhausted more and more because of the people in your life. You wish to be more supportive... but...

“Compassion fatigue.” “Empathy burnout.” These are phrases applied to helping professionals like doctors, nurses, therapists, animal welfare workers, and so on. They describe what happens when the nonstop pain of other beings hammers them. They become frazzled by the sheer intensity of the loss and misery they see every day. Burnout becomes real.

It may be fair to speculate that even those outside of these professions may face some lesser form of empathy burnout – especially those with the Feeling personality trait. (It’s likely many who enter helping professions do so because this trait influences their career decisions.) Even though not all people who share this trait are professional helpers, so much of their worldview gets filtered through their emotions and sense of humanity. Some may come to care too much.

For professionals, the symptoms of this form of burnout are often like those of post-traumatic stress disorder. These can include depression, anxiety, overeating, not eating enough, sleeping too little or too much, irritation, feeling numb, and avoidance of others – to name a few. Is it possible that some people with the Feeling trait who become overwhelmed experience similar things to a greater or lesser degree?

Our research repeatedly shows that Feeling personality types typically say they are more supportive of others than Thinking types. They’re more available for caring activities. They even claim to be more open to hugging. Putting themselves in other people’s shoes – the casual definition of empathy – is common among Feeling types, especially Diplomats, with their robust imaginations. While they may not be professional helpers, they may care for a lot of other people, anyway.

When Caring Isn’t Balanced

We commonly explore personality traits from the angle of a person investing too strongly in a narrow approach to life, leading to an imbalance. It’s a common-sense thing. Tunnel vision robs life of some of its richness and some of the resources found outside of dominant traits. For example, an Introvert who indulges that trait too much by refusing to spend any time with others is likely to go from being alone to lonely. Hanging out and letting loose on occasion may remedy some of the loneliness. Borrowing from the Extraverts’ style can be all the balance that’s needed.

Seeing things only through the lens of helping others, while unselfish, can lead to an incomplete life. We found no research that shows a direct link between Feeling personality types and compassion fatigue. But it’s not too far of a leap to speculate that some with the Feeling trait experience burnout. (Anyone who cares for others, regardless of personality type, might do themselves a favor by keeping the potential for burnout on their radar.)

Feeling personality types who are overwhelmed risk becoming numb or even avoiding the very thing that gives them a sense of self-worth – extending themselves to others. If being good to others starts to feel bad, then perhaps there’s a need for some balance. We’ll look at a few of the many ways to avoid or escape burnout.

Taking Care of Yourself While Taking Care of Others

Reset your priorities.

As a Feeling personality type, you may need to check your priorities. This metaphor is a trifecta of tired, old, and clichéd, but people often cite the example of the typical flight attendant who instructs airplane passengers that, in case of emergency, parents should put on their own oxygen mask before helping their children. But as clichéd as it is, it holds up well. A parent in this emergency situation is useless to the kid in the seat next to them if they’re passed out in their own seat. They must take care of themselves first.

A burned-out friend or family member isn’t likely to be very supportive in any sincere or useful way. Such a friend or relative may need to “put on their own oxygen mask first.” You may need to prioritize self-care. Make it a priority to discover ways to nurture your body, mind, and soul, and then do them. You might preserve your energy and attitude enough to continue to give to others, but aside from that, you deserve to be taken care of too. Period. Who’s better suited for that job than you?

And that means different things to different people. Some may find that simply getting enough sleep bolsters their sense of wholeness. Others may find that they need to feed their souls by taking a sabbatical from their daily lives in a faraway land. A gap year (or week) from life, so to speak. Looking within may be the first step in deciding what works best to nurture you. But don’t settle for a one-size-fits-all prescription offered by some. Self-care is more than just what you need. It also includes what you want.

Know when to say no... or even quietly bow out.

Just as each person must find their own self-care methods, each person must also draw their own lines. While your heart may want to make everything better for those you care about, you may need for your head to step in and say, “Enough.” You can’t save everyone – and it may not be beneficial for some of the people you’re attempting to help to even try.

You may need to ask hard, rational questions about your own effectiveness and your own resources. Everyone has limitations, and recognizing them is much more useful than pretending they don’t exist. Are you taking on too much? Do you possess the time, energy, or attitude to extend yourself even further? Do you sometimes feel obligated to help even if you sense it may be more than you can handle? Is it time to let someone else deal with the situation? Only you can decide.

Ask for help.

In the old Christopher Reeve Superman movie, Superman swoops through the sky to save Lois Lane from a deadly fall to the ground for the first of many times. “I’ve got you,” he says. “You’ve got me? Who’s got you?” she responds incredulously. Since the characters are fictional, we assume that nobody reading this article flies and wears a cape. But some of you may be playing the role of a hero, all the same. That’s great. But who’s got you?

Support can be very important for those who care for others. It might be as informal as a network of loving friends, caring colleagues, or there-when-you-need-them family members. It might be as formal as a group designed for sharing specific concerns and problems. Often trained counselors, clergy, or therapists can help. (This is especially true if feelings of anxiety or depression are intense or persistent. There’s no reason to suffer from the more serious effects of burnout when help is available.) A thoughtful support person can help Feeling personality types find a more wholesome perspective when they care too much.

Consider getting support before you even feel like you need it. A prophylaxis approach may prevent burnout. Someone to talk to, or even unload on, can help maintain a balanced view of things as you talk about your life, the things you’re doing, and your relationships with the people you care for. As a bonus beyond warding off burnout, we learn much about ourselves when we choose to share our stories with others.

Burnout Is Optional

Sometimes it’s easy to confuse helping others with sacrificing everything. There may, at times, be a measure of sacrifice that can be joyfully accepted by a caring person. But if someone with a Feeling personality type does nothing but sacrifice, they are likely to deplete their energy and enthusiasm. Then how helpful can they be?

When talking about personality traits and types, balance is almost always the answer. So, share your generous nature with the world. It needs you badly. But don’t forget to take care of yourself as well.

We’d love to hear your stories about the Feeling trait, helping others, and finding (or not finding) balance. Please feel free to share them. You don’t know who you may be supporting when you do.

Further Reading

Your Friend Has 99 Problems: Do YOU Feel Overwhelmed?

Why Should I Care?: An Architect Experiments with Empathy

The Angry Mediator – Stories from the Real World