By Dr Nanaki J. Chadha | Sep 11, 2023, 9:36 PM IST

Empathy Being a Double-Edged Sword: Friend or Foe?

The poem by Morgan Harper Nichols accurately outlines and encapsulates the true essence of empathy as our strength as it allows us practitioners to guide and support athletes in the best possible manner.

As sport psychologists, we stand ready to open that door, creating a psychologically safe and non-judgemental environment for athletes, where they feel secure and can share their thoughts, vulnerabilities and emotional experiences without any inhibitions.

While we may have never walked in their shoes and have not experienced their challenges first-hand, empathy allows us to deeply understand their emotions, creating a rapport. This connection fosters trust, enabling athletes to open up about their aspirations, struggles and fears.

The ability to try and put ourselves in other people’s shoes and empathize with the fact that their soles are worn, and strength is torn helps us acknowledge the resilience athletes display by conquering their struggles, defeats and heartaches to emerge victorious and resilient. 

More often than not, empathy serves as an invaluable asset in our role as sport psychologists by acting as a trusted friend. Demonstrating empathy helps in building a strong professional relationship that enables clients to feel understood and supported.

Whilst guiding athletes through their emotional turmoil and witnessing their triumphs and them overcoming their struggles has been deeply rewarding, we as psychologists can often find ourselves burdened under the weight of a story we have never lived before. The constant exposure to athletes’ struggles can lead to emotional exhaustion and compassion fatigue, as we may internalize their challenges. Under some circumstances, the very trusted friend can become a “foe” leaving us mentally exhausted.

While we hold the door for them and empathize with all that they have walked through, we might tend to over-identify and believe that the least we can do is understand their struggles and support them in the best possible manner. This can inadvertently impose immense pressure on us, potentially compromising one’s own emotional and psychological well-being.

NEVERTHELESS, a question I have been pondering over for months is – while we step out to rescue the world and empathize with others, how often do we extend the same empathy to ourselves?

From my own personal experience, I’ve come to realise that empathy, the very act of kindness and support, can often result in sport psychologists experiencing exhaustion, compassion fatigue and burnout. My recent recognition and acknowledgment of experiencing burnout has been extremely humbling, as it has served as a reminder that even those of us who offer support must, in turn, support ourselves. After all, we cannot pour out of an empty cup, and neglecting my own well-being was in some ways, diminishing my effectiveness as a sport psychologist.

To conclude, empathy is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it acts as a guiding compass in my interactions with athletes, but on the other hand, it presents some potential pitfalls. We do hold the door, not to walk in athletes’ shoes, but to offer unwavering support, understanding, and guidance. However, it is imperative for us to safeguard ourselves and practice self-care, establish and maintain clear boundaries, cultivate emotional regulation, and empower ourselves by seeking supervision to counteract the challenges that empathy can bring upon us.

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