What Makes us Human?: A Dialogue

Amy J. Wilson
16 min readJun 8

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What makes us human?

This is a question that I ask participants in my four-part series around Empathy for Change. Usually when I lead a discussion, it takes us in the direction of: we as humans can reason, we can love, we can stand upright. Or it might veer into the realm of “we make war and are capable of making peace.” Deep stuff.

One of the biggest things I find that separates ourselves from other animals is “empathic resonance.” It’s the feeling we get when we’re with other humans, sharing and being in community with one another. We feel each other’s joy or feel each other’s pain.

It is literally encoded into our neurobiology. Your nervous system uses specialized cells called neurons to send signals, or messages, all over your body. These electrical signals travel between your brain, skin, organs, glands and muscles. The messages help you move your limbs and feel sensations, such as pain. It also helps us respond to our environments, including the other nervous systems within that environment.

The concept of mirror neurons gives us our innate feeling of someone else’s experience or we can imagine what others might be feeling — our brain wants to be in community with the people around us. Evolutionarily, it’s been beneficial for our survival to sync our nervous systems up together. For example, if someone else around you goes into a fight, flight, freeze, or feign state, it’s indicating to our nervous system that there’s likely danger that we need to respond to and historically that’s been great for us to survive. If this natural syncing up of our nervous systems goes left unchecked, however, we can end up triggering each other into survival states without our conscious awareness.

As an empath, I often feel like I’m taking on the emotions of others as if I’m feeling them myself, and it is hard to see where my suffering ends and another starts. Over time, I’ve built up my awareness of how this shows up and have established better boundaries for myself. But lately I’ve been feeling like the vibes are off — like really off. It’s been hard to articulate what others have been feeling, and in conversations with friends and colleagues from all walks of life I can say with certainty that many people are struggling.

Burnout refers to the slow onset of feelings of hopelessness and that one’s work has little positive impact. Burnout results from long term non-supportive work and school environments. This might come in the form of heavy workloads, working long hours, having little control over your work, and difficult work-life integration. We are in a space of burnout, but I feel like it’s deeper than that.

Compassion Fatigue

I thus began a curiosity into why I’m feeling why we’re not okay. Two weeks ago, I shared the 2023 State of Workplace Empathy Report and shared that there is a huge disconnect between our senior most leaders in our companies and what is happening on the ground or within human resources departments. In fact, our leaders seem like they’re in denial that this problem even exists.

This Spring I had the privilege of working with nurses in a four-part Book Club series around my book Empathy for Change with the goal of putting empathy into action in their workplace. A topic we discussed often was “compassion fatigue, which is a combination of burnout plus (secondary) trauma. These two things together create a deeper sense of burnout and emotional exhaustion.

“Trauma is an experience, set of experiences and/or impacts from social conditions that break or betray our inherent need for safety, belonging, and dignity,” says Staci Haines in her book: The Politics of Trauma: Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice. Secondary trauma is the emotional duress that results when an individual hears about the first-hand trauma experiences of another. This is very common in helping professions like nursing, first responders, therapists.

Nurses are in crisis, as are many healthcare professions. There’s a well-known shortage of nurses around the country, and the ones that are serving are utterly burnt out. There’s data that says members in each of these professions are particularly feeling the squeeze:

  • Healthcare (doctors, nurses, therapists)
  • Education (K-12 and Higher)
  • Human Resources

Knowing this, the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office (led by Dr. Vivek Murthy) has issued an advisory and call to action for Health Worker Burnout. There’s a greater awareness that we are approaching deeper levels of dissatisfaction, distress, and ultimate burn out in these professions. But as I dove deeper into this feeling, I could feel in my bones that there’s something greater happening within all of us that isn’t just for people in healing professions. That’s when I learned about “empathic distress”.

Empathic Distress

The term “empathic distress” comes from psychotherapy, and is defined as “the strong aversive and self-oriented response to the suffering of others, accompanied by the desire to withdraw from a situation in order to protect one’s self from excessive negative feelings,” says Trisha Dowling, a Canadian clinical pharmacologist. In other words, empathic distress is becoming exhausted from empathic resonance — being in community with other people who are experiencing distress.

In the pandemic our need for safety, belonging, and dignity have been threatened, which has resulted in trauma that we are actively processing. Many of us find that we don’t have the emotional, social, or financial resources to support life as it is now, and we may not want to let on just how bad we are for fear of being fired or for a number of reasons. We resonate signals of distress, which our nervous systems pick up and our survival states get triggered without conscious awareness. As a result, we’re in a constant state of fear, arousal, and fight, flight, freeze or feign.

Here’s Haines again about this reaction:

“We have built psychological (mind, body and evolutionary) ways to protect ourselves when our safety, belonging and our dignity are threatened. These are mobilized automatically so we don’t have to think about it. You’ve likely heard about the instinctive response of fight, flight, freeze, appease and dissociate.”

If multiple people are in distress at work, our individual pain starts to get muddy with each other’s pain, and we may be triggered or fearful. Over the span of a day we become depleted and exhausted. We might start checking out and disconnecting from what’s happening to others around us.

When we are in a reactive mode we put on our blinders — we have tunnel vision. We only respond to what’s directly ahead of us, and fail to have empathy for the people around us. We’re being reactive to what’s in front of us rather than proactive to what we need or want. We live in a state of fear and scarcity — that there are not enough resources to go around. We then rely on our conditioned responses to the world, which is full of bias. We end up misjudging someone or assuming many things about them that may not be true. So thus we see our neighbors as people to fear instead of people to love and understand. This misunderstanding can escalate quickly into conflict and then start the cycle of stress or distress all over again.

This new level of burnout and exhaustion is leading us to reimagine the role of work in our lives and what the workplace should be and how to navigate in a world that is so full of stress. This is the mission of my work — to reconnect with our inner knowing and abundance mindsets so that we begin to connect with the people around us. Stated in another way, I help people to become human — again.

Personal and Organizations Symptoms of Empathic Distress

So how do we know we’re in empathic distress? The good thing is that there are several symptoms that can alert us to when we’re feeling the squeeze in our lives and bodies. And, on top of that there are symptoms to look out for in our organizations to see when it contributes to our own burn out and distress.

Some individuals may be more prone to feeling empathic distress or compassion fatigue. Here are some risk factors that may increase a person’s vulnerability to either of these:

  • A history of trauma or a pre-existing psychological disorder, isolation, and a lack of social support in our personal lives
  • A lack of professional support or supervision in the workplace, inadequate training, and a high number of clients with severe traumatic experiences

Do either of these sound familiar? Yep — we’ve experienced higher-than-normal isolation and social support these past few years. The demand for therapy has soared in recent years, according to a November 2022 American Psychological Association study. Since the beginning of the pandemic, almost 80% of practitioners report an increase in patients with anxiety disorders and 66% have seen an increase in those needing treatment for depression.

When we’re in a space of poor mental health and well being, there’s many far-reaching effects it has on our bodies. Beyond physical ailments like fatigue and headaches, it can also lead to feelings of helplessness or powerlessness. It might lead us to lose our purpose and question how good the world is, and we might isolate ourselves from the people closest to us, and still in other cases we become pessimistic or unable to concentrate. It can really be disorienting to be in this state.

Below is the long list of personal symptoms we experience when experiencing empathic distress:

Individual Symptoms Examples

  • Physical: Headaches, fatigue, or weakened immune system
  • Emotional: Feeling powerless, anxiety, helpless, or distressed
  • Behavioral: Increased irritability, changes in appetite and sleep, hypervigilance, or being easily startled
  • Spiritual: Loss of purpose and meaning or questioning the good in the world
  • Cognitive: Diminished concentration, pessimism, inattention, or recurrent or unwanted thoughts
  • Relational: Withdrawn or isolated from or distrust of friends or family

Our feelings of distress may be caused by the workplace, but our symptoms also show up there. Symptoms of empathic distress at work are that we have low motivation and loss of interest or apathy. We might feel undervalued or underappreciated, disconnected. Again, we might isolate or one of the ones I do is dragging my feet going into work because I dread going into yet another day, which makes me perpetually late.

Here are a few symptoms we might show when at work and suffering from empathic distress:

Workplace Symptoms Examples

  • Performance: Decreased quality of work, low motivation, or forgetfulness
  • Morale: Decreased confidence, loss of interest or apathy, feeling undervalued and unappreciated, being disconnected, or reduced compassion
  • Relational: Detached and withdrawn from colleagues, increased conflict or impatience with colleagues or clients
  • Behavioral: Calling out of work, arriving late, or general irresponsibility

Combating Compassion Fatigue

So now that we know the symptoms and the diagnosis, what is the treatment, doctor? Well, I’m not a doctor, but I did talk to one. “The antidote to empathic distress is to go towards self compassion, not self care,” says Esther Boykin, LMFT is a licensed marriage and family therapist and relationship advocate. “It’s recognizing that what’s happening is something that happens among human beings all the time — it’s empathic resonance. There’s no amount of naps, massages, manicures, and flights to wherever that will resource us back to being happy and content.”

So, what are we to do? We need to refill our internal resources, know ourselves and share with others. Here are three ways we can really overcome our own distress and shift our resonance with others:

  • Self compassion and kindness: Know that we are doing the best with the resources we have, and that we can’t do everything. We have to let go of the grip we have on life and let the world flow around us. I know, easier said than done.
  • Mindful awareness: Understanding how we’re showing up (or not showing up) in our lives, when we are triggered. What brings us sadness and joy, what are the sources of frustration and challenges in our lives. How might we be more aware of how our actions affect other people around us as well.
  • Shared common humanity: As humans, we are meant to share with other bodies, and our nervous systems to resonate with other nervous systems. The more we lean into community, into each other, we can learn how to trust and grow and become more of the people we want to be.

You may have heard of the old adage that says: “you can’t control the world around you, but you can control yourself.” This adage is especially fitting here. With these tips, you can recenter yourself into the calm in the midst of the chaos.

Below are a few additional strategies you can use to overcome empathic distress or compassion fatigue, no matter what profession you’re in:

Self-awareness

Pay attention to thoughts and feelings, interactions with others and general stress or anxiety level. Can be done through meditation, mindfulness activities, journaling or other reflective activities

Self kindness and self care

A way for us to be more compassionate with ourselves for the struggles we’re facing. We need to come out of denial that we are unhappy and want to change. Self care is any activity to take care of mental, emotional, or physical health, such as practicing yoga or drinking a cup of tea. Note though, that self care alone will not help us get out of burnout and empathic distress.

Healthy boundaries

Set mental, emotional, and physical limits and put your needs first, such as saying “no” to tasks when in a time crunch, asking for help, or delegating tasks to others

Support Network

Identify friends, family, colleagues, or others (e.g. therapist) who can provide support, such as calling a friend after a stressful day at work.

Work-Life Integration

Manage time to balance work with life responsibilities (e.g. childcare, housework, managing finances), personal relationships, and self care.

One thing I’m gathering from these strategies above is hope — that we can overcome the challenges we face every day. And with concerted effort, we’re able to overcome them and lean into what works for us. It’s allowing us to do a bit of navel gazing to look inward, so that we might go beyond ourselves to reconnect back to humanity so we can get back to empathic resonance with each other. It’s through this process that we get back to what it means to be human, and for our nervous systems to re-regulate themselves to go from a state of fear to a state of safety.

Addressing Self Doubt and Taking Imperfect Action

The title of this section is exactly the question I was asked to talk about at a recent coaching circle led by my dear friend Ashley Jablow. She asked me to come to talk to the dozen or so women who are working towards small actions to change their lives. This is right up my alley, and I was glad to talk to them. I thought I’d take a few minutes to sum up some learnings I had from that conversation.

Caption: Photo by Eleanor Jane: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-in-black-tank-top-holding-a-mirror-4624527/

Life is one series decisions after another we make every day on how we live our life. We are either in a place where we’re reacting to the world, or thoughtfully responding to it. And, indecision is a choice we’re making — we’re choosing not to make a choice. Fear lies underneath most of the decisions we make, and it was designed by those in power for a reason, and it’s also built into our neurobiology. Because, if we stay in fear then we are reactors rather than actors in our lives. We are easier to mold and manipulate.

Over the years I’ve learned to retrain my brain to think that failure for me is about growth and learning, not about worrying about the worst possible thing that could happen to me. In the past I have ruminated on all the things that could happen rather than being in the present and embracing that it could bring a great outcome and growth for myself. That’s the reframe.

We all have the courage to do hard things. You don’t have to take the best step, you have to just take the next right step. Then the next step after that. Pretty soon you’re rolling and you will look back and look at everything you’ve accomplished.

Finding Self Compassion

So, how might we overcome self doubt and take imperfect action you might say? I think it requires us to have self compassion. It allows us to be kind to ourselves that we don’t know everything and by taking actions we’re making progress towards our goals. And, when we hit that inevitable snag or fork in the road, we’ll be able to ride the wave much calmer than we have in the past.

To do that, first, we have to overcome our inner critic. To have more control over our inner critic, we can insert some positivity in our lives. It can be hard when we get caught up in negativity to make sure that we are also focusing on what’s going well in our lives. There are a lot of great skills that can help you to gain more confidence in your life by having more positive self-compassion. The more confidence and self-compassion we have the more we will push ourselves to reach our goals.

Inspirational Quotes

“You can’t build joy on a feeling of self-loathing.” — Ram Dass

“You’re always with yourself, so you might as well enjoy the company.” — Diane Von Furstenberg

Empowering Questions

Self-doubt will always be a part of your life…(there’s a name for the small percentage of people who don’t experience any self-doubt: psychopaths.) But that doesn’t mean your inner critic will always be in the control tower of your mind. If you keep practicing these skills you’ll learn to keep moving forward despite what that “Negative Nancy” tells you. This means sometimes you’ll mess up. There’s no such thing as progress without some mistakes here and there. Don’t let the fear of falling keep you from ever taking your first step.

What is one step you can take this week to push past your self-doubt?

Today’s Skill Share

For this week’s skill, here are three different self-compassion exercises that you can implement in your life to help you have more confidence.

Give Yourself a Break

When we are trying to reach our goals we may feel tapped out and we don’t have any more energy to put in. When we are feeling burnt out like this it can lead to us making silly mistakes, struggling to concentrate, or feeling just too spent to keep trying. It is important to give ourselves permission to feel this way, and to say to ourselves: “This, too, shall pass.” Be kind to yourself the same way you’d be kind to a loved one, and say, “you did a lot today. Sit back, enjoy a drink and a TV show, and try again tomorrow.” Everyone needs time to rest. Now think: what are a few of your favorite ways to recharge after an exhausting day?

Record Your Accomplishments

When we start looking at how far we have to still go to reach our goals, it can be easy to forget how far we have come. By taking the time to look back at how far we’ve come it can provide a huge confidence booster. This can be a good reminder: “Hey, if I can make it that far, maybe I really can reach the top!”

Take the time to record your accomplishments one time a week in a notebook. Give yourself permission to acknowledge the small things too. Maybe you had coffee with someone in another industry to discuss switching careers, or you stood up for yourself when your sister made a disparaging remark about you. Taking those little steps, again, and again, is what leads to big change.

Imagine Your Way Forward

When you’re feeling overwhelmed by a goal, it helps to remember that adage, “How do you eat an elephant”? One bite at a time.” It can be helpful to write down the steps you have to take to be where you want to be. It’s okay if some of the steps are unknown at this point. You will be able to fill in those blanks by researching, talking to people, and gaining experience. For now, just look at the first step. That’s all you have to do.

Say your goal is to train for a marathon. Some mornings you might wake up and think, “I can’t do this!” Ask yourself, “What can’t I do? Put on my running shoes and go outside? That’s all I must do right now.” If you had started first grade by thinking about how hard your senior year of high school would be, you’d probably be a six-year-old dropout. But by the time you’d finished 11th grade, the 12th grade didn’t seem so bad. Have faith that the rungs of the ladder hang together and will get you to the place you’re trying to go.

What I’m Leading This Week

A workshop on understanding our identities and what we’ve inherited from past generations. We all are complex and contain multitudes. Each of us has a unique mix of social categories that are visible or more keenly felt at different times, and how those categories impact the ways others perceive or treat us. These are called identities. On the other hand is our inheritance, which is the sum of ancestry, culture, beliefs, values, stories, social conditions, traits, and perspectives received from past generations.

Caption: Photo by Robert Stokoe: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-kissing-woman-s-cheek-1421784/

Did you know that in the past 400 years we each needed a total sum of 4,094 ancestors to get to where we are in this moment. There’s so many beliefs, values, stories, and social conditioning that have been passed on to us in these 400 years.

Think for a moment for what your ancestors had to undergo for you to exist in this present moment.

  • How many struggles? How many battles? How many difficulties? How much sadness?
  • What traumas would they have experienced? What joys happened?
  • How much happiness? How many love stories? How many expressions of hope for the future?

Throughout these past 12 generations we have inherited a great deal. I am first generation American (from Ukraine/Poland), first generation go to college in my family. I grew up on 20 acres of land in a trailer in Street, Maryland. My people are from the Ukraine, and I inherited the spirit of resilience, tenacity, and forging our own path in the world. I’m stopping the generational trauma that I’ve inherited and helping to forge a new path for me and everyone else I support.

“The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness, and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.” — Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Sources:

  • Bell, H., Kulkarni, S., & Dalton, L. (2003). Organizational prevention of vicarious trauma. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 84(4), 463–470.s
  • Bonach, K., & Heckert, A. (2012). Predictors of secondary traumatic stress among children’s advocacy center forensic interviewers. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse: Research, Treatment, & Program Innovations for Victims, Survivors, & Offenders, 21(3), 295–314.
  • Mathieu, F. (2012). The Compassion Fatigue Workbook. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Amy J. Wilson

Author, Founder, and CEO. Empathy for Change. Movement maker, storyteller, empathy advocate.