Before I go any further, I think it’s important to make my stance on this very clear: Compassion fatigue is real, and it should be acknowledged and managed. However, it is NOT an excuse to opt out of caring! It should never be used as a defense for poor behavior or a reason to sit on the sidelines of important issues.
Okay, now that I’ve said that right at the beginning, let me back up and explain what I’m talking about.
Guys, 2020 has been a year for the history books. Pandemics, murder hornets, meth gators, social justice fights, political mudslinging—the whole thing reads like a bad ’90s action film. I wrote a post previously about the fact that it’s okay to feel whatever emotions you might be feeling, and that hasn’t changed. Things haven’t gotten any less messy or stressful, yet here we all are, doing our best to keep moving forward.
If you’re starting to feel numb, disconnected, tired, or just “off,” don’t worry. It’s not just you, and it’s not permanent. What you’re feeling is most likely compassion fatigue, and it’s completely okay to admit that.
If you’re starting to feel numb, disconnected, tired, or just “off,” what you’re feeling is most likely compassion fatigue, and it’s completely okay to admit that.
The term “compassion fatigue” is most often applied to healthcare or social workers, but the truth is that it can happen to any of us, especially now when it seems like the sky is falling every other day.
What Compassion Fatigue Is
In essence, compassion fatigue happens when we are constantly bombarded with images, experiences, and stories of immense suffering. We might not be experiencing the trauma firsthand, but persistent exposure to the suffering of others causes mental and emotional strain that you might not even be consciously aware of.
I’ve been reading the work of Dr. Charles Figley, who did a lot of pioneering research into handling this kind of trauma, and this quote from him might help you to understand compassion fatigue a little bit better:
“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”
That last bit really stuck with me. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves. We might feel tired all the time or on edge for “no reason.” We might start withdrawing from friends, lashing out, or complaining a lot more. Sometimes, we might even get annoyed and blame the victims for their suffering.
If any of that sounds familiar, it’s okay. I want you to pause for just a minute and acknowledge it to yourself. Say it out loud if you can.
It probably feels weird and uncomfortable to say something like that out loud. So then, why do it? Because denial is the most common and most insidious symptom of compassion fatigue.
We feel guilty or ashamed for having moments when our empathy just isn’t there, so we try to push it away and “care harder,” which just makes the problem worse. We also tend to downplay just how stressed and tired we are because “other people have it worse,” so we don’t look for help until things are very bad.
A Quick Aside About What Compassion Fatigue Isn’t
Before I jump into how to manage compassion fatigue, I want to once again make it clear that this is not an excuse for bad behavior. This isn’t a catch-all justification for saying or doing things that are hurtful, and it isn’t a valid reason for making bad decisions.
Remember this: Mental health is not your fault, but it is your responsibility. You don’t need to feel ashamed, but you do need to take steps toward becoming healthy again.
How to Come Back From the Edge
The good news is that, if you’re still here with me, then you’ve already made the first step toward recovery!
There is no secret cure for bouncing back from compassion fatigue. Remember that you got to this point through a series of incremental steps, so you’ll have to take incremental steps to get back to yourself, too.
Instead of giving you a step-by-step plan, I’m going to give you some recommendations from experts. Much like building a beauty routine that works, you’ll have to go through a bit of trial and error to see what’s helpful for you.
There is no secret cure for bouncing back from compassion fatigue. You got to this point through a series of incremental steps, so you’ll have to take incremental steps to get back to yourself, too.
- Don’t be afraid to seek therapy in person or online. It’s important to work on staying connected to people who can understand and validate your experiences.
- Begin setting boundaries for yourself. You can control the types of media you consume and the types of people you spend time with. If it’s hard to do things like this for yourself, remember that maintaining those boundaries is not only good for you but for everyone in your life.
- Don’t spread yourself too thin. You can’t prevent every bit of suffering, so focus your energy on a few issues that are close to your heart. You can empathize with other issues and support those who are pouring their energy into those causes, but you don’t need to drain your own emotional stores to do so.
- Be gentle with yourself. You’re going to mess up. You’re going to fail at maintaining boundaries. You’re still going to feel depressed, angry, or apathetic sometimes. The more that you can accept these things without berating yourself, the more gracefully you’ll be able to dust yourself off and do better next time!
- Don’t downplay your own needs. Suffering isn’t a competition; it’s a shared human experience. We all suffer differently, but it’s all valid and worthy of addressing. Again, if it’s hard for you to do things for yourself, remember that expressing your needs allows you have more capacity to care for others.
Compassion Is a Gift
Now that you know what compassion fatigue is, you can work to prevent it in yourself and in others!
The human capacity for empathy and compassion is one of our greatest gifts, and learning how to nurture it in the face of so much suffering is something that you should truly be proud of.
If you’re interested in reading more about compassion fatigue, I highly recommend the following links:
- The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project has a huge and extremely helpful list of resources.
- The American Institute of Stress goes really in-depth on compassion fatigue, burnout, and other related types of trauma.
- This Psychology Today article does a great job of breaking down the symptoms of compassion fatigue, and it provides links to more research about it, too.