Conscious or unconscious empathy?

God created us with a hard-wired capacity to sense and respond to the emotions of others (e.g., John 11:33-35; Romans 12:15), also called “empathy.”  Hard-wired means that God created your brain to resonate with the emotional brains of others.  This hard-wiring is “online” at birth.  Empathy involves the emotional areas of your brain receiving and echoing the emotions of another person (see March 2022 Emotional).  Consider how you respond to a laughing baby or a whimpering pet.  Empathy allows us to create connection and closeness with others.  However, empathy has a downside.  Church leaders can find themselves overwhelmed by the emotional demands of constantly ministering to distressed people.  Trauma expert, Babette Rothschild, refers to this phenomenon as “unconscious empathy.”  Unconscious empathy is “empathy processes that are outside of [your] awareness and therefore outside of [your] control”*.   Because unconscious empathy happens out of your awareness, you may stoically continue to pour yourself out until your body collapses.  Or you may pull away from others by armoring up, emotionally shutting down, and even emotionally cutting yourself off.  Rothschild asserts that over time unconscious empathy eventually leads to compassion fatigue (see Emotional, June 2021) and ultimately to burnout.

The good news is that conscious empathy is a skill you can develop and refine.  How often are you exhausted by the emotions of others?  How can the idea of “unconscious empathy” help you to grow as a pastoral care giver?

Thrive in Five

  1.  Review your current self-care practices.  If we are to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, then we also need to follow Jesus’ example caring for self.  Jesus rested when he was tired, ate when he was hungry, and removed himself from ministry involvement to rejuvenate and reconnect with His Father.  Jesus didn’t deny his human limitations.  He respected them.  In this way he was able to be emotionally present to the intense emotions of others because he was never emotionally depleted (unconscious empathy) for extended periods of time.  How well do you guard your self-care practices from erosion or neglect?
  2. Budget your emotional energy.  You do not have an inexhaustible supply of emotional and physical energy.  Yet you may operate as if you do.  Creating an emotional energy budget involves reviewing the ebb and flow of your workday, week, month, and year so that you can anticipate the seasons of greater demand [like Christmas, Easter, and Vacation Bible School] and intentionally plan a recovery period.  An emotional budget can also include delegation of tasks to capable others.  An emotional budget helps you build up a reserve supply upon which you can draw when unexpected ministry demands come your way.  Can you take time to create an emotional budget?  Whose cooperation and support do you need to make your budget a reality?
  3. Know yourself.  When are you most energized?  Are you a morning person or a night owl?  How much freedom do you have to craft your ministry tasks to match your energy ebb and flow?  Respect your personal history.  Unconscious empathy is often activated when we minister to someone whose pain is a reflection of our own resolved or unresolved pain.  How well do you anticipate emotional demands of your ministry tasks?
  4. Nurture self-awareness.  Unconscious empathy drains us emotionally and physically.  Too many of us do not “live in our bodies” fully enough to be aware of and to respect their more subtle signals that we need a change of pace, or we need to refuel.  Too often we wait until we crash and burn before attending to self-care.  How aware are you of your body’s need for rest and food?  How often do you ignore warning signs of physical indicators of dis-ease? How often do you push your physical body to its limits?

Be present in the present moment.  Present moment awareness facilitates self-awareness.  To be in the present moment means that you are fully aware of what is happen now.  You become aware of those many times when your thoughts turn to the past in regret or anxiously turn to the future, and you intentionally return to the present moment.  Practicing present moment awareness can alert you to the activation of unconscious empathy.  You can then transform unconscious empathy into conscious empathy.  Can you practice “being” in the present moment several times a day for a few seconds each time by turning your focus to how you are breathing or how your physical body is feeling? How can present moment awareness increase your awareness of God’s present moment presence in your life?


Babette Rothschild, 2023, Help for the Helper, Introduction. Norton

Pastoral Compassion Fatigue,

Soles of the Feet, [to practice being present in the present moment]

*Babette Rothschild, 2023, Help for the Helper, p.2


Emotional contributor: Virginia T. Holeman, PhD., LMFT, LPCC, Retired Chair of the Department of Counseling and Pastoral Care, Asbury Theological Seminary
Executive editor: Johanna Rugh
Curator of content: Carla Working