Compassion Fatigue

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion itself is characterized as a sense of shared suffering or a desire to alleviate someone’s suffering, and essentially arises through empathy, often manifesting as someone acting with compassion seeking to aid someone who is suffering. This is not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but when it bleeds over into compassion fatigue, it can become detrimental.

“Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Dr. Charles Figley

Compassion fatigue is also known as secondary traumatic stress, vicarious traumatization, empathic distress, toxic empathy, or burnout (though burnout is usually more characterized by working long hours or being in high-pressure environments as opposed to the negative effects that can come from caring for others).

Where can it show up?

  • Helping professions such as therapists, social workers, or counselors.
  • Crisis workers, i.e. EMTs, nurses, hospice workers, doctors, police officers.
  • Aid work, humanitarian work, and volunteer work.
  • Activism and social justice work.
  • Helping a partner or partners, family members, or friends through difficult times.
  • Watching the news.
  • Caring for an ill loved one.
  • Parents raising children.

What does it look like?

  • Exhaustion.
  • Irritability.
  • Lack of empathy or compassion, numbness or cynicism.
  • Resentment towards the person or people you are caring for.
  • PTSD symptoms such as physiological arousal, intrusive thoughts, or dissociation.
  • Bottled up emotions.
  • Self-medicating.
  • Dread of work or of a particular person.
  • Isolation.
  • Poor boundaries, or incredibly rigid boundaries, or a toxic cycle of both.
  • Denial of all of the above.

How to handle it

Self care

  • Food, movement, sleep.
  • Communicating what is going on to people around you.
  • Actual rest, such as sensory deprivation, meditation and mindfulness, and naps.
  • Professional help or support groups.
  • Reading inspirational material.
  • Creation and expression.
  • Connection, avoiding isolation.
  • Asking for the support and help you need from a partner.
  • Pet an animal.
  • Foster a separate self, with rituals for on/off modes.

Cultivating compassion skills

  • Listen to episode 326 on Stoicism.
  • Zooming out to get perspective on interdependence.
  • Zooming in to see the individual who is benefitting from your care or your work.
  • Buddhist or other mindfulness practices that have been studied and shown to be effective.
  • Paid time off and helping organizations being able to turn inward and care for their own.

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