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Are You Struggling With Compassion Fatigue? How To Heal

Heard of compassion fatigue, but not sure what it is or how to spot it? I’m a trauma therapist, and I have both experienced compassion fatigue myself and worked with many clients struggling with it.

Here’s a crash course in addressing compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a gradual decrease in compassion toward those you serve due to a state of physical and emotional exhaustion. Less compassion and empathy = more apathy toward those you serve = poor care. And if you work with people, providing poor care is probably not what you want! 

The idea of “those you serve” generally implies that compassion fatigue is something that happens to people who work in helping professions, including healthcare, social work, education, etc. Helping professions are at the highest risk for compassion fatigue, but it can also happen to people who work in customer service and have ongoing relationships with clients or customers, as well as people who are personal caregivers for a parent, partner,  relative, or child.

Compassion fatigue comes out in how we work with people. I’m going to use the word “client” to describe the people you may work with or serve at work, understanding that there are many terms and also understanding that “client” doesn’t accurately describe a person you serve in your home as a caregiver. I will try to keep contexts broad whenever possible. 

Compassion fatigue can look like increased apathy toward clients. Or it can look like over-identifying with clients and having poor boundaries. It can mean a poorer quality of care for clients or making more mistakes with their care.

All of these have negative effects on clients, and can make it that much harder for them to meet their goals, get the care they need, and move forward with our lives.

Compassion fatigue is something that happens to us, and yet it ultimately results in harm to the people we want to help. 

How do people get compassion fatigue?

The short answer: problematic systems. In my own field of mental health, I can name a dozen reasons why people get compassion fatigue: low pay, high student loan debt (because therapists have to have a graduate degree), annoying bureaucratic tasks, overwhelming amounts of paperwork, dealing with insurance companies who try to not pay us for services we’ve already provided, constantly absorbing other people’s trauma, not getting many benefits in our jobs, little respect compared to other healthcare professionals, and so many more. 

Compassion fatigue usually occurs in people who are deeply compassionate and caring.

Makes sense right? Your reserves of compassion can’t become fatigued if you didn’t have them to begin with. Compassion fatigue almost always shows up in people who have good intentions and a desire to help, but who get broken down by the systems around them. 

While the specific reasons are individual to each person, it all comes down to this: compassion fatigue results when people are expected to give more of themselves than they are reasonably able to, and don’t get enough back. 

Emotional labor

When you hear the explanation of how compassion fatigue results, you may recognize that it sounds a lot like how people of color may be expected to give more of themselves without getting much back simply by existing in the world. This is true particularly when people of color are expected to educate the world on anti-racism and absorb push-back, confusion, and ignorance from white people all white maintaining their professionalism and poise.

All of this falls under the category of Emotional Labor, and it’s absolutely a cause for compassion fatigue. So if you are a person of color and resonating with the symptoms of compassion fatigue, but feeling like it can’t apply to you because of your job… trust your intuition. You may very well also be experiencing compassion fatigue. 

What are the symptoms of compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue can look very similar to PTSD, just related to work or caregiving. Some of those symptoms include over-identifying with clients (poor boundaries), increased apathy toward clients, trouble sleeping, nightmares about work, hypervigilance, an increased startle response, increased anxiety, and avoiding situations that are causing the trauma and loss of compassion.

In addition to these, there are some symptoms that usually show up at work. These include a significant change in boundaries, making more mistakes, seeming distracted or aloof at work, getting overwhelmed by tasks quickly, increased negativity, decreased productivity, using increased sick time, and developing a pretty dark sense of humor.

What can I do about it?

If these symptoms resonate with you, there are absolutely some things you can do to start treating compassion fatigue. 

1. Take control of your schedule and boundaries

If there is any way to switch up your days off to fit your needs better or adjust how long your shifts are, or work remotely part of the time, do it. Give yourself a little more space from work in any way possible.

Taking control of your boundaries usually means saying “no.” Say no to work tasks that aren’t essential. Say no to random committees and workgroups that don’t seem to have much effect anyway. Say no to taking on new clients or responsibilities. It’s okay to just be average and get through your workdays while you’re healing from compassion fatigue.

2. Seek support from a therapist

Compassion fatigue is a form of trauma, so treat it like trauma. A therapist can support you, validate your concerns, and offer more individualized opportunities for healing. 

3. Start doing embodiment work

Embodiment simply means getting more attuned to your own body, her (his/their) needs, and the information she gives you on a daily basis. Start by doing what I just did – calling your body by your gender identity. The more we consider our bodies a critical part of who we are, rather than an object we use, the more we will listen to and respect our bodies.

You can also bring embodiment work into therapy, through techniques like EMDR or somatics. Start keeping a mood tracker, or a cycle tracker, or any other tracker that helps remind you to pause and listen to your body.

4. Take care of your physical health

And speaking of the body, taking care of your physical health is really important when you’re struggling with compassion fatigue. Get your annual check-up. Take your vitamins. Hydrate. Go to the dentist. Actively move your body every day. Eat nutritious foods as often as possible.

You will extend your struggle with compassion fatigue much longer if your body physically doesn’t get the fuel to recover from it. 

5. Find a hobby that’s completely different from your caregiving role or job

My three main hobbies are making soap, gardening, and singing in a local choir. All three are totally different from my job as a therapist, and that’s exactly how I like it.

For those addressing active compassion fatigue, I do not recommend volunteering directly with people or spending all your free time reading about compassion fatigue or mental health.

Do something that activates other parts of your brain and that lets you have fun and be creative. 

Next steps 

If you’re recognizing compassion fatigue in yourself, I hope you can take a few of these steps. Start with whatever feels easiest and has the lowest barrier for you to achieve. And know that compassion fatigue absolutely can get better.

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