Learning to Balance Apathy and Empathy in Caregiving


Many people talk about the need for empathy in caregiving but what happens when apathy is left out? Caregivers must learn to walk a tightrope with empathy on the left and apathy on the right. Some caregivers must maintain that delicate balance for years at a time. Too far left leaves caregivers sick and exhausted. Too far right leaves caregivers completely ineffective and defensive. Learning how to balance these two opposing traits is truly part of the art of caregiving.

What is Empathy?

Empathy involves perspective taking, listening while not judging, relating to the other person’s emotions, and communicating that you understand the other person’s emotions. Essentially, empathy is the ability to feel — at least on some level — what another person is feeling and the ability to relate to it.

What is Apathy?

Apathy is empathy’s opposite and mostly manifests as a feeling of indifference or being unable to sense or relate to how another person is feeling. There is an absence of concern for the well-being of others or the well-being of the self.

Positive versus Negative

At first glance, empathy seems like it would always be the best course of action while providing quality caregiving services. The positive side of empathy includes understanding, compassion, and the ability to provide care that is tailored to each individual.

However, empathy in excess can cause harm. A very good example is the fable of the butterfly emerging from a cocoon. As the story goes, a man watched the butterfly struggle to break free from its cocoon and felt the creature’s suffering so strongly that he decided to help. What he didn’t realize was that the butterfly needed to break through the cocoon on its own, in order to strengthen its wings so that it could fly. Due to the man’s help, the butterfly emerged with wings that were not fully formed and was never able to fly.

This story shows that being empathetic is a good thing, but if the emotion takes over it can cloud a caregiver’s judgement of how to provide the best care. The negative side of empathy includes enabling behaviors, doing tasks for people instead of teaching them how to do things themselves, and sacrificing one’s self for the betterment of others.

While apathy usually gets labeled as a bad or negative trait, a little bit of apathy can help create healthy boundaries for caregivers and can keep empathy from tipping over into excess. So, what does a bit of healthy apathy look like?

One of the aspects of apathy is the ability to not care what other people think. When applied to caregiving, this can help caregivers not take things personally when clients get upset. It can be easy for caregivers to take insults or negative behavior to heart and blame themselves, but a tiny bit of apathy can protect a caregiver’s sense of self and will allow caregivers to remain more neutral in the process.

Another positive to apathy is that it helps caregivers understand that some things are out of their control. Being empathetic makes people want to solve every problem, so that they can reduce the suffering of others. A little bit of apathy is required in situations that caregivers are not able to fix. Apathy can help caregivers let go of their frustration so that they can better focus on things that are within their control.

Providing Quality Home Care Services

The home caregivers at Alegre Home Care understand how to maintain the delicate balance between empathy and apathy. All of our home caregivers go through extensive training, including training specialized for dementia care and LGBT seniors. If you are interested in receiving quality home care services or in becoming a caregiver, please reach out to us at one of our Northern California locations.

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