Compassion Fatigue: Just what is it and how do you get it?

March 8, 2022

First off, “Compassion Fatigue” is a real thing. I promise I didn’t make it up. Compassion fatigue has been described by Figley (1982) as the “cost of caring” for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a
pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of one’s career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us into this work: our empathy and compassion for others. (Figley, 1982)

In essence, for those who are in the helping business (i.e. social workers, nurses, case managers, advocates, etc) and those who are in the business to help (i.e. family members, family caregivers, and loved ones) the ability to feel compassion and empathy for others is being threatened due to what I like to call “chronic caring.” You’ve become jaded and worn by giving your all to others day in and day out and there is very limited, if any, support left for you. When this happens, you are increasing your risk of developing compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue can prove to be very dangerous if not addressed as early as possible. Below are the most common emotions that may lead to compassion fatigue:

  • Resentment (upset with others or self) • Anger (mad at others or self)
  • Grief (mourning a loss)
  • Sadness (not satisfied)
  • Loneliness (no one cares)
  • Guilt (“shoulda”, “woulda”, “coulda”) • Defensiveness (sensitive)
  • Helplessness (can’t do anything right)

If you experience any of these feelings, and these emotions begin to impede your ability to enjoy activities and/or complete tasks that help to identify and define who you are, such as going to dinner with friends; exercising daily; shopping; going to work or church, etc, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue. Once you notice the signs, you’ll need to address them immediately. You might consider taking time away from work (and yes caring for a loved one is work); hiring a caregiver to watch over your loved one so that you can get the much-needed break and respite your mind, body, and spirit are screaming for is a necessity. Also, you might consider joining a support group; join in with a group of people who have been through what you are going through and are able to offer you tangible support and strategies.

Whatever you do, DO NOT IGNORE your body’s messages; respond.