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July 3, 2023

When Empathy Becomes Apathy: Why Self-Care is Necessary

by Megan Jordan, LCMHC

Do you care deeply about other people? Do you feel intense emotions at times? Do you prioritize caring for others, to the detriment of your own health? If you do, you may be an empath. Dr. Judith Orloff states “Empaths have an extremely reactive neurological system. We don’t have the same filters that other people do to block out stimulation. As a consequence, we absorb into our own bodies both the positive and stressful energies around us” (Orloff, 2018, pg.2).

Empathy can manifest in many ways. You feel physical pain when others are in physical pain. You cry easily when you are near someone who is also sad or tearful. You have high sensitivity to the people around you. There is nothing wrong with being empathetic. I believe it is truly a gift. However, like all good gifts, we must use it in moderation. Otherwise, empathy can lead to physical and emotional exhaustion, which can leave you at the opposite end of caring. You can become apathetic. Numb.

In recent years, given the heightened emotional and physical needs of people throughout the globe, many people have felt an increase in emotional awareness, stress, anxiety, depression, among other mental health issues. Those who are prone to feeling deeply and intensely, have found ourselves worn out, burnt out and becoming apathetic. Many times, we can attribute this to the lack of our own self-care practices.

“Self-care” has become a catch phrase, but what does that really mean? Here are specific things you can do to care for yourself. And let’s be clear, caring for yourself does not indicate that you are selfish. It means that on the list of people who need to be cared for, your name is there too.

Ways to Care for Yourself


I cannot emphasize the need for deep, restorative, consistent sleep, enough. In his book, Why We Sleep, Dr. Matthew Walker states this: “Two-thirds of adults throughout all developed nations fail to obtain the recommended eight hours of nightly sleep” (Walker, 2017, pg.3). And, “Routinely sleeping less than six or seven hours a night demolishes your immune system, more than doubling your risk of cancer.” (Walker, 2017, pg. 3).


There is so much talk about nutrition and we are inundated with information about the latest eating habits and diets. It can make your head spin. However, I have come across one book that focuses on brain function and how what we consume directly impacts our physical and mental health. Dr. Mike Dow states in his book, Heal Your Drained Brain, “If you have a drained brain, you feel anxious, frazzled and fatigued.” (Dow, 2018, pg. 7).

Our brains are like gas tanks, the higher quality gas (food) you give your brain, the better it will function. Your brain is directly impacted by how your body is fed. Therefore, it is imperative to make high quality nutrition, not a “diet”, the focus of your food choices, vitamins and supplements.

Get moving!

You do not have to join a gym, hire a personal trainer or buy an expensive home exercise apparatus. You just have to start moving. Exercise has been shown to help with body function, brain function, and longevity of life. There are so many ways to get active. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Park your car further away from the building you are entering. Make yourself walk more. Stretch your muscles instead of sitting on the couch while watching your favorite show. Play outside with your kids. Swim. Bike. Dance. Garden. I’m sure you can find your way.


“No.” Go ahead, say that word out loud. “No.” That is the word that empaths struggle to say. Some might suggest that our inability to draw a boundary is disguised as “selflessness” and viewed as a positive trait. However, not setting appropriate boundaries only communicates one thing – other people’s need matter more than mine. And that can be viewed as a self-harming perspective. It can perpetuate poor mental health, poor physical health and ultimately lead to depression, anxiety, among other issues.

Have fun!

When was the last time you did something fun? When was the last time you laughed until you cried? When was the last time you took a spontaneous day trip? Watched your favorite comedian? Bought that concert ticket? Rode that roller coaster? Played that board game? Played hide and seek on a rainy day? Life is precious. Live it. Enjoy it. Be grateful for it.


Be intentional to balance each day with necessary activities and activities of enjoyment. Otherwise, we get out of balance, become resentful, frustrated, fatigued, and lose focus on what is truly important in life. Here is an exercise to start working toward a more balanced life, and to help you care for yourself. Picture three empty buckets in front of you. Each one has a different label: Have To. Need To. Want To. Jot down each of your “to do” items on a separate piece of paper. Then, place each one into the appropriate bucket. Here’s an example:

Have To

Buy groceries. Eat a nutritious meal. Take a hot shower. Pay the mortgage.

Need To

Do a load of laundry. Cut the grass. Run an errand. Exercise.

Want To

Meet a friend for coffee. Take a walk outside. Take a nap. Read a book by your favorite author.

You get the idea. What’s the point? You need to pull an item from each bucket everyday. Really consider those items that you have labeled Have To and Need To. Can they wait until another day? If we are not careful, we will spend more time pulling from those two, and less time pulling from tasks or activities that we Want To do, that really bring joy, rest, and self-care.

Self-care means giving yourself grace each day and permission to care for yourself. And remember, self-care is not selfish. It is necessary.


  1. Dow, M. (2018). Heal Your Drained Brain. Hay House, Inc.
  2. Orloff, J. (2018). The Empath’s Survival Guide, Life Strategies for Sensitive People. Sounds True.
  3. Walker, M. (2017). Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams. Scribner.

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