Understanding Compassion Fatigue

Defining Compassion Fatigue

At its origins, the definition of compassion fatigue speaks to an emotional and physical burden that stems from the act of caring. It is what occurs when you give and give parts of yourself until your cup is no longer full, and you are left numb.

Compassion fatigue is more common than we think. This is especially true if you consider compassion fatigue as a spectrum, with individuals experiencing a degree of symptomology at any given point along the spectrum.

Previously, compassion fatigue was known as an experience had by those in the helping profession. As a part of their role, they were exposed to the distress of others and the responsibility and concern for holding another person’s wellbeing in their hands – all within a high-stress and high-demand environment. However, you do not need to be a helping professional to experience compassion fatigue. Simply, you need to be a caring individual.

Think of the connections you have in your life. Do you place the needs of others before your own? Do you believe that another’s needs, life, and survival hinges on you? Do you find yourself overwhelmed and questioning your capacity to support another person? Many people are in the position these days of looking after another – it may be an elderly parent, a close family member, a friend, or your own children.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is as unique as the individual experiencing it. While there are an array of signs and symptoms, most people report an undeniable sense of not feeling like themselves. They get caught up in being the person they need to be for another, and they end up losing themselves.

People experiencing compassion fatigue may find themselves unable to express and feel empathy for another or notice they are unable to find pleasure, joy, or hope. They may retreat and isolate themselves from experiences and others, even around close family, and friends. They may refrain from expressing their thoughts and feelings or blame others for what is happening. They may also feel excessively tired and experience physical symptoms, such as gastrointestinal concerns or constantly feeling sick. These behaviours and actions serve as warnings that let us know we are not okay, and things need to stop or at least slow down.

Recognising Compassion Fatigue Education and self-awareness are key to recognising signs of compassion fatigue. Education surrounding compassion fatigue and how it may present can help us regularly check in with ourselves and review where we are at. This can be as simple as rating the degree to which you are consciously experiencing symptoms on a scale of one to ten, where one is very much like yourself and ten is being untrue to you.

Recovery and Prevention

Develop a Self-Care Plan

Self-care may be better understood as self-nourishment or investment in self which supports your capacity to function and show up for yourself and others. When we are at our best physically, mentally, and emotionally, we are more capable of going about our day with confidence and resolve.

Engage in Self-Reflection

Self-reflection is an analysis of self – it is a means of gaining a deeper understanding of who we are, our thoughts and actions, and our values. This deeper self-awareness provides an opportunity to bring your life and your world into alignment. Self-reflection can improve your relationships with yourself and others, support your capacity to make clear and informed decisions, and reduce your stress and worries.

In addition, it allows you to review your experiences with distance from emotions. In turn, this allows you to consider your role and contribution to your experience, how you would like to be, where you would like to be, and what choices and actions you can take to put you on this pathway.

Practice Gratitude and Mindfulness

At any given moment in time, we have the capacity to exercise control and influence how we engage with our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours – in essence, how we choose to show up in our world. Take time to focus on yourself, your experiences, the things you have, and the people in your life. Consider what within those you are grateful for. This process can positively influence your headspace and help you move towards living a more meaningful life.

Mindfulness is about being actively present. It can offer relief from problem-saturated, “what if” thinking, which can get you stuck travelling along an unhelpful trajectory.

Mindfulness is not about pushing aside and avoiding difficult thoughts, feeling, and experiences. Rather, it provides you a space to reflect and consider the choices and actions you take that might be unhelpful and problematic.

Set Boundaries

Setting emotional boundaries allows you to maintain your compassion and empathy for others while preserving emotional safety. An emotional boundary is consciousness of being a separate entity from the person you are caring for – in other words, that their world, life experiences, and state of being are not your own.

Seek Help

Remember you are not alone, and assistance is always available. If you find yourself stuck, please reach out to your EAP for support and guidance.

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