Compassion fatigue: When helping hurts

Since I graduated from college, I have worked at non-profits and have had jobs where my goal is to improve the lives of others. For me, I love having jobs where I can help others and I feel like it is what I am here to do. Here’s the thing, though, those of us that work in helping professionals are prone to compassion fatigue.

What is compassion fatigue?

Here at Bossed Up, we talk a lot about burnout – and compassion fatigue is a cousin of burnout.

The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project describes compassion fatigue as:

a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create secondary traumatic stress for the helper.

The way that I describe compassion fatigue is the exhaustion, stress, and apathy that is caused by focusing exclusively on helping others and not focusing on ourselves. The symptoms of compassion fatigue are similar to burnout, but the cause may be different. Emilie, the head boss here at Bossed Up, talks about her experience with burnout which was caused by overworking and not focusing enough on herself.

Compassion fatigue may have a component of overworking as a part of it, but caring and giving too much is a critical part of it. Compassion fatigue is seen in healthcare professionals, those who work with traumatized people, and full-time caregivers. No surprise, women are more likely to experience compassion fatigue as they are more likely to work in caring roles.

Psychology Today has a long list of symptoms of compassion fatigue, but here are a few I’d like to point out:

  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Physical and mental fatigue
  • Bottling up emotions
  • Feelings of hopelessness and powerlessness

How to beat compassion fatigue

Beating compassion fatigue is similar to beating burnout. Here are a few tips:

Self-care. I know self-care is super millennial and quite trendy right now, but I think that is because of how important it is. Self-care is about giving yourself what you need and not feeling bad about that. It doesn’t have to be expensive, or time-consuming (although it can be those two things), it can be quick things you do on a regular basis.

Some of my favorite self-care practices include meditating, cycling, and a monthly massage. Find things that work for you and your budget and begin to incorporate them into your life now.

Therapy. Caring for people intensely can not only be exhausting but can bring up things from your past and about you. I am a huge advocate for therapy; for me, it is really nice to have someone I can talk to who can help me focus on improving my life. Therapy can be a way to manage compassion fatigue, and help you stop it from derailing your drive. If you haven’t ever gone to therapy, I’d recommend using Psychology Today to find a therapist or utilizing Talkspace.

Rest and sleep. How can one expect to beat compassion fatigue and burnout when you are exhausted?!? I know for me, when I am exhausted I am more prone to stress. For me, I have to sleep eight hours a night, but others can sleep less and feel rested. Doesn’t matter to me, but please make sure you are getting enough sleep and resting when you can.

Finally, and arguably most important, rely on your fellow caregivers. This may be your colleagues or others who do similar work but rely on people who have a similar experience. Share your experiences with people who have similar experiences, and talking to them when you are stressed can help to catch compassion fatigue before it hits you.

My fellow caregivers, please make sure you are giving yourself what you need so that you can be at your best both for yourself, and the people you are helping.

This article first appeared on Bossed Up.