The Elephant Still Roams in the Room

AI image of elephant in room

"Healthy emotional empathy makes for a more caring world. It can nurture social connections, concern, and insight. But unregulated emotional empathy can be the sources of distress and burnout; it can also lead to withdrawal and moral apathy."

-Roshi Joan Halifax

Recently I attended a webinar about faculty experiences in higher education all across the country. What is clear is that the elephant in the room is still being ignored and not addressed. That elephant being the fact that many faculty are still experiencing burn out. Although we are still trying to figure out how to "do" higher education after returning to campus after a pandemic and still in the midst of the pandemic, many faculty are still struggling emotionally, physically, and spiritually. If you recall I shared the first pillar of "Following your Purpose" (Pope-Ruark, 2022), in a previous blog. When we are burnt out it is easy to forget the reason(s) why we do what we do. Have you worked on finding purpose of your work? I hope some of you were able to find time, albeit your already busy schedules to reflect on these questions posted in the previous blog.

The second pillar is "Practicing Compassion for Yourself" (Pope-Ruark, 2022). This is easier said than done. We can be hard on ourselves. It's hard to say no because we fear others will perceive us as not being a "team player" or "not a fit," when in reality we are just trying to make sure we do not overwhelm and/or overwork ourselves to the point of illness, fatigue, isolation, alienation, etc.

The first thing you need to do is ask yourself, "What does compassion look like to me?" A friendly reminder, there is a difference between compassion and self-care. According to Neff (2011), self-compassion as "simply accepting ourselves with an open heart" (p. 6). She identifies three core components of self-compassion, each identifying the negative behavior we tend to hold on to when in fact we should be compassionate with ourselves. For example, self-compassion verses self-judgement. When you work in an environment that is toxic, accusatory, dehumanizing, where you are constantly being questioned and challenged, etc., one tends to internalize these behaviors and start to judge their own selves (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 107). Don't go there; it is better to practice self-compassion.

Self-judgement leads one to isolate and feel alienated when we should be practicing common humanity (common humanity versus isolation). Right now common humanity is needed more than ever. Being isolated and alienated does not help anyone, but connecting with others who practice kindness, compassion, understanding, empathy, etc. is what is needed. Reflecting on one's connection to others via our shared human experience is critical (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 107).

Finally, mindfulness vs. over-identification.Being mindful of how our body, mind, and soul respond to our experiences provides mindful attentiveness. This allows us to name the pain, suffering, worrying, etc. as part of our human experience. When we do this , it also brings to light the joy and goodness we experience. When one practices self-compassion, they are more likely to show compassion toward others because they have an attitude of kindness and consideration toward themself (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 107).

Self-care means just what it sounds like, taking care of self. It means utilizing approaches and actions that result in being kind and considerate to oneself. Some examples of self-care are things like taking time off, eating well, exercising, meditating, getting enough sleep, etc. Along with thinking about what does compassion look like to you, dig deeper and ask yourself, "How am I practicing compassion towards others and myself and how does compassion practice align with my values and purpose (Neff, 2011, p. 193).

Wearing a badge of exhaustion is not something to brag about. What exhaustion does, it leads to physical, emotional, and intellectual emptiness. It empties your vessels where you have nothing left to pour especially to yourself because you are overextended and strained (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 108). Consider the following reflection questions:

  • What does exhaustion look like to you?
  • What was a time you felt emotionally exhausted at work? How did you deal with it?
  • What strategies do you use to cope with exhaustion? What about those strategies is, or is not, working for you?
  • In what ways might exhaustion and compassion fatigue impact those around you?

One thing we need to be careful is to not depersonalize, which is a major symptom of burnout. We set ourselves a part of the people serve when we depersonalize because it is easier to manage them when we see them impersonally. Depersonalization also leads to compassion fatigue and feelings of being helpless, hopeless, powerless, while feeling personally responsible for doing more, knowing full well your vessel is empty (Pope-Ruark, 2022, p. 123).

It is more important than ever to find a way to bounce back from burnout. Self-compassion is something you can do to start your recovery from burnout. Yes, it is possible. As you consider how this is possible, consider the following reflection questions:

  • How can you offer yourself and those around you compassion?
  • How might expressing vulnerability open up new avenues of support?
  • How do we change the culture of higher ed to allow vulnerability, normalizing asking for help, and offering support, and shift unrealistic expectations that lead to burnout?

Stay tuned for more information on the next Pillar of burnout, "Deepening Connection with Peers Near and Far." Remember, it should not be taboo to talk about burnout. In fact, the more we talk about it, the more we can remove the shame associated with it, and the better we can hope to do something about it. In the meantime, please take care of yourself and remember to breathe and pause daily and carve out time for reflection, silence, peace and to stretch your body, mind, and soul. Additionally, consider dropping by the Center for Teaching and Learning to take a break, grab a cup of coffee or a cup of tea, eat a snack, and just to say hello. We would love to see you.


Listen to The Agile Academic Podcast to hear more on this topic.


Neff, K. (2011). Self-compassion: The proven power of being kind to yourself. New York, NY:

Pope-Ruark, R. (2022. Unraveling faculty burnout: Pathways to reckoning and renewal. Johns Hopkins Press.)