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Compassion Fatigue: What is it?
Compassion Fatigue
Emotional Health

Compassion Fatigue: What is it?

Compassion fatigue mostly hits individuals who are in helping professions, such as nurses and social workers. However, with the way we are exposed to suffering and tragedy, we are also at risk of contracting it. This is how to prevent falling into the trap.

Humans are exceptionally gifted in emotional intelligence. It’s the glue of social bonds, family, community, and wider civilization. Although Western society actively encourages individuality and the need to self-focus on dreams, needs, and desires, at the heart of it, helping others, and understanding their suffering, is essential to the evolution of humanity.

Despite the narrative of survival of the fittest, there’s increasing evidence that a tendency toward altruism — focusing on actions that support others, without social gain — is ingrained in human DNA. Empathy in action is compassion, which is at the core of many spiritual traditions for good reason. Not only does compassion allow us to understand other people’s pain, it inspires us to take action to help ease that pain.

However, there is a balancing act. Compassion takes energy, and our energy isn’t limitless. Even the most kind-hearted, selfless individuals risk emotional exhaustion if they overextend. As the old saying goes: “You can’t pour from an empty cup.” 

So how do you find balance and avoid developing compassion fatigue? How do you handle yourself when experiencing compassion fatigue, and how do you maintain a focus on self-care in your personal life? How can you maintain your own mental health, treat compassion fatigue and simultaneously ensure that you’re able to support others in the best way possible?

This guide will explore the causes of compassion fatigue, before offering you a number of practical steps to find a greater balance between self-care and serving others. Overcoming compassion fatigue is not impossible - let us show you how!

compassion fatigue

Compassion fatigue definition

Let’s start with the basics by defining compassion itself. Compassion is more purposeful than sympathy, or pity. Whereas the latter is defined as the ability to feel the suffering of others (but with no further steps required), compassion includes a desire to help people alleviate that suffering. 

One of the most soul-nourishing definitions of compassion comes from the Buddhist practice of Karuna, one of the qualities of true love. This type of compassion has no personal motivation (aside from the intrinsic reward of altruism, which feels good).

Offering selfless compassion to others isn’t an easy practice. It involves opening your heart to vicarious trauma or distress, which can quickly become overwhelming. Anyone who is inclined to feel a certain sense of “compassion satisfaction” in prioritizing the needs of others above their own may find that they dedicate more time and attention to helping others than helping themselves. If this is the case, they become susceptible to compassion fatigue, and must learn ways of managing compassion fatigue when it inevitably creeps in. 

This is why another crucial point of Buddhist philosophy — loving-kindness and compassion — begins with the individual, with you. Any act of compassion that doesn’t involve an element of self-care isn’t complete. Instead, people that experience compassion fatigue often find that it empties the cup of compassion, making it more difficult to pour for others.

compassion fatigue definition

What is compassion fatigue?

The term compassion fatigue is used to describe this process of emotional burnout  whereby someone becomes numb to the suffering of others. This is commonly seen in health care workers such as nurses, doctors, or therapists. People experiencing compassion fatigue are also often those supporting a loved one through mental or physical illness. It can appear at times to be a form of high-functioning depression.

Another term for compassion fatigue is secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD) which is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A secondary stress reaction is a form of emotional turmoil that can arise from hearing of the suffering of others, including descriptions of traumatic events, or being present to intense emotions. 

STSD is a form of adaptation, a coping mechanism in which someone effectively shuts off the pain or distress they feel in order to deal with this secondary trauma.

Secondary traumatic stress: A heavy burden

There is somewhat of an innocence and a kind-heartedness evidenced in this process. Essentially, the compassion that someone has, and the willingness to help, has left such a heavy burden that this person struggles to cope. The irony is, in the long run, compassion fatigue prevents people from being effective, even though it's often caused by a desire to support others.

One of the big risk factors of compassion fatigue is an individual, especially a professional, who overlooks their own vulnerability. This is why it is essential to prevent compassion fatigue, especially for health care providers and others that require a prioritization of their own self care, their own needs, in order to keep working.

what is compassion fatigue

Developing compassion fatigue symptoms

It’s easy to mistake compassion fatigue for burnout, but the two are different. Compassion fatigue is linked to the suffering of other people, and a numbing of empathy that originates from feeling overwhelmed. Burnout, on the other hand, can relate to all areas of life, be it from too much work, or stress levels for various life circumstances.

According to the University of Washington, compassion fatigue emerges more quickly than burnout and is easier to overcome. They identify various compassion fatigue symptoms, which include:

An increase in emotional sensitivity and a decrease in cognitive functioning

For example, feeling easily upset or irritable, whilst lacking in focus.

Anger or frustration towards individuals

This is the big reason for people with secondary traumatization to be vigilant towards their levels of self-care — it’s common for people with compassion fatigue to direct their frustration to the person they’re supporting.

Signs of depression or anxiety

compassion fatigue symptoms
(Maskot / Getty)

This includes loneliness, the lack of enjoyment in pleasurable activities, and anxiety or panic that can be low-level and chronic, or intense.

Tiredness and emotional numbing

Perhaps the most telling symptom is responding to others' pain in ways that feel unusual or lacking in the person’s usual standard of empathy. Physical symptoms include fatigue and aches and pains.

In his paper When Helping Hurts, Frank M Ochberg, MD explains the role of compassion fatigue with helping professionals, in particular the double-edged sword of sensitivity. He writes:

“Sensitivity has two distinct meanings. One is emotional awareness and accurate perception. To be sensitive is to be able to experience fully and correctly. But the second meaning of sensitivity is vulnerability to pain. Often these two forms of sensitivity exists side by side in us. We are good outreach workers, therapists, advocates, reporters, because we are sensitive. And, because we are sensitive, we pay a price sooner or later.”

That price is compassion fatigue.

Experiencing compassion fatigue, and how to overcome it

The message is clear from both psychological insights and ancient spiritual traditions: the best way to overcome compassion fatigue is to be gentle with yourself. You have to learn how to manage sensitivity in a skillful way, to fill your cup, to allow you to support and serve others in the best way you can. This involves a certain level of self-awareness to know when you need to take time for yourself.

Of course, boundary setting is essential to avoid compassion fatigue. Without boundaries, you’ll overextend. Again there’s a double-edged sword, because people who are particularly selfless tend to associate boundaries with selfishness. However, when understanding that setting boundaries allows you to ultimately serve from a healthier place, you can see they benefit others too.

Seek support from others

what is compassion fatigue

Support from others is vital in addition to self-care. That could involve talking to a therapist about negative thoughts or painful emotions, or finding a group of peers if you’re a helping professional. Others who work in similar fields will be able to relate in ways other people might not be able to. The same applies to those supporting a loved one — there are support groups for carers that create an environment of mutual support and community.

Focus on your own wellbeing

Preventing compassion fatigue is preferable to treating it once it has started to have a negative impact on your life — that means making time to be supported by others, and look after yourself before the symptoms become too intense. Eat well, focus on your wellbeing, and get regular exercise. Don’t think you’re immune to compassion fatigue, and see self-regulation as part of your wellbeing routine.

Avoid self-judgment

Last but not least, be aware of self-judgment. If you’re struggling to empathize, it can be tempting to see yourself as uncaring or unhelpful, but know this is a natural response to supporting others. Work on any related beliefs around the balance of service and healthy self-care, to enable you to find a way to serve others without self-sacrifice.

You’re only one person, you can only do so much without sacrificing your mental health. Perhaps one of the best ways to spread more compassion in the world is to start at ground zero, accept you have only so much to offer, but that offering has the potential to transform or save someone else’s life. It’s like being on an airplane. If there is trouble, you need to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others - even your own children. After all, you can’t continue to help them if you are no longer awake!

Look after yourself

empathy fatigue

The impact of empathy, altruism, and compassion is far-reaching, with the immediate effects rarely seen. Trust that your actions have an impact. Trust in your inherent goodness. Do what you can to support others, but don’t forget to look after yourself.

Need a little help? Read these self-love quotes for some inspiration.

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