The importance of empathy
Empathy is critical in any relationship, and perhaps more so when a loved one has bipolar. That said, empathy fatigue is a very real thing.
“Even though a parent, sibling or significant other recognizes it’s a biological illness that’s significantly out of an individual’s control, they don’t feel as much empathy over time,” says Eric Morse, MD, a psychiatrist in North Carolina. “The feeling can be, ‘Well, you should’ve seen a psychiatrist more often,’ or ‘You should’ve seen the next episode coming,’ or ‘You should’ve had more medication adjustments.’ They feel like they’ve been there, done that, and they don’t want to listen as much anymore.”
Empathy fatigue can go both ways. The most common complaint Morse hears from clients is that loved ones often take any minor irritability or short-tempered statement as a sign of another manic episode—or reason for an increase in medication dosage.
“That can make an individual who’s suffering more upset, more angry, and not want to maintain a loving relationship,” Morse explains. “They don’t want every comment to be evaluated through the lens of, ‘This is your illness talking and not you as a person.’”
Ghadeer Okayli, a psychiatrist from Texas, tells clients to work with loved ones on ways to ease stress during an episode before the symptoms present themselves. Prep and freeze a few meals, perhaps, or designate a trustworthy and willing family member or friend to help out at a moment’s notice.