Compassion Fatigue

As human beings, it is difficult to take on the pain of others and not be affected. What happens when we take on the pain, worry, sadness, or anxiety of others and don’t refuel or replenish what is depleted in ourselves? This is the essence of compassion fatigue, or CF. It is what happens when take on the needs (or pain) of others, are affected by it, and make little time to care for our own needs. Over time, this can impact us on a number of levels detrimental to our own health. 

Brené Brown shared in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, “In a society that says, ‘Put yourself last,’ self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.”

Research shows the impact of compassion fatigue and burnout can have grave effects on just about anyone who works in a helping environment but can affect a wide range of professions where someone can experience difficulty in the workplace, heavy workloads, excessive demands from others, and long hours.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Anger and irritability
  • Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
  • Impaired decision making 
  • Interpersonal relationship issues
  • Heightened anxiety or irrational fears
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Weight change and/or sleep issues

Those who use compassion and empathy in their daily work can be particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon. If the set of symptoms that make up compassion fatigue are ignored or go untreated, it can have considerable ramifications.

Sometimes, we grow up having to care for others, and this can lead to compassion fatigue. Research conducted by the CDC and Kaiser Permanente (2014) in their landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, points out that people who suffer difficult (or dysfunctional) childhoods are at greater risk to being victims of violence, suffer more chronic health conditions, or have been estimated to have a low quality of life.

When we are placed in a position to care for others at an early age, we learn to put others’ needs before our own. What this means is that we grow up lacking strong personal boundaries, have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility, and carry within us unresolved trauma that comes out in ways that are sometimes unpredictable.  

When compassion fatigue comes on, we can feel these symptoms. We may lack the knowledge or awareness of what is happening to us, and even lack the ability to assess our experience objectively to enable us to take proper measures to restore the balance in our lives. 

Doing for self is not being selfish. In fact, engaging in regular self-care builds resilience. So often, we think that taking care of our own needs means we are not giving to others or, even worse, that we’re not deserving of the care we so freely give to those in need. 

Like depression and other mental health issues, there is no cure, but there are healthy and effective ways to manage compassion fatigue, such as learning and implementing self-care to prevent it from disrupting our personal and professional lives.