What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Our capacity to feel empathy for the suffering of another person is a beautiful thing. It’s one of the ways we connect as humans, helping each other feel seen and lifting each other up when life gets rough. But sometimes, it can become overwhelming to bear witness to so much of other people’s pain.
Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon that was originally identified among those working in the caring professions, where holding space for other people’s trauma is a daily requirement. But those of us who don’t work in these professions, yet are naturally sensitive to what other people are feeling, are also at risk. It’s also becoming more generally prevalent in a world where stories of unimaginable suffering seem to be at our fingertips morning, noon, and night.
Secondary Traumatic Stress
Compassion fatigue presents in a number of ways, and the signs can look a lot like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Also known as secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue can show up as chronic exhaustion, overwhelm, poor work-life balance, hopelessness, anxiety or sleep disturbances, among other symptoms.
It can also result in numbness, cynicism, insensitivity or reduced empathy – a feeling of disconnection to someone else’s pain. This can then lead to guilt, shame, and an inability to show up for others authentically. Studies have found compassion fatigue to be prevalent in mental health professionals, social workers, medical practitioners, and first responders.
But in a world with so much going on, compassion fatigue appears to be pervading ordinary life. Holding space for friends, family, and other people in our communities amongst global instability takes its toll, before we even consider the stress and trauma that we witness on the news. As Dr. Naomi Rachel Remen from the University of California put it, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
Not all of us deal with trauma professionally, but neither are we trained to cope with the volume of people in our lives and on our social media feeds whose adversity elicits the instinctive emotional response from us that is empathy.
It’s true that anyone going through distress deserves our compassion. It’s also beneficial to our psychological health to act with compassion. But many of us also have a tendency to try and “fix” a distressing situation, which can lead to anxiety about that which is not in our control. While there’s some debate about the definition of empathy and how passive or active it is, world-leading researcher and speaker on shame and vulnerability Brené Brown offers an important distinction: “Empathy is not feeling for someone. It’s feeling with someone.” Are we engaging with another’s pain in the moment, honoring it, and passing through it, or are we trying to take it on in their stead and carry it for them? Holding on to someone else’s pain doesn’t lighten their load一it simply increases how much pain there is in the world. And that’s definitely not the goal, is it?
How To Recover From Compassion Fatigue
If you find yourself spiraling into any of the symptoms of compassion fatigue, it’s important to look after yourself first. Just like the analogy of the parent strapping on their oxygen mask first during an airplane emergency, you will not be able to support others when your own mental, physical, and spiritual resources are drained. It is important to refill your own cup and restore your inner well of energy first, so that not only do you not have to harm yourself by helping others, but also so that when you do help people, you’re coming from a place that is stronger, more whole, and full of something to actually give.
Take steps to untangle how you are feeling, such as through journaling, meditating, or seeing a therapist or coach. Rest up and call on practices that feel nourishing to you, whether that’s yoga, golf, mindful coloring, or taking a stroll by the beach at sunset. Moving forward, keep an eye on your boundaries and establish what you can and can’t cope with when it comes to supporting another. Assess your own feelings when confronted with other people’s trauma. Are you feeling with them, open-heartedly, in a space where they are simply comforted by your presence一or is something else going on? Are you being as compassionate with yourself as you would be to anyone else? Just remember that your need to receive support – even from yourself, to yourself – is as human as your need to give it.
All of the content on our website is thoroughly researched to ensure that the information shared is evidence-based. For more information, please visit the academic journals and other resources that influenced this article: Predictors Of Compassion Fatigue In Mental Health Professionals; Prevalence And Predictors Of Secondary Traumatic Stress Symptoms In Health Care Professionals Working With Trauma Victims: A Cross-Sectional Study; Reflecting On The Concept Of Compassion Fatigue; Compassion For Others And Self-Compassion.
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