It’s called compassion fatigue. It’s a condition involving physical, psychological, and spiritual symptoms. It’s sometimes described as a gradual lessening of compassion. It happens to care givers, both those in the helping professions as well as those who have a primary role caring for loved ones. It happens when an individual cares for others, day in and day out, without taking time to care for self.
Compassion fatigue is also known as burn-out. It’s the experience of exhaustion, of not being able to engage in one’s normal responsibilities, along with feelings of emptiness. Compassion fatigue is also known as Secondary Traumatic Stress. This is when someone has been with a number of people who have experienced traumatic incidence stress (like a natural disaster or gun related violence) and the stress of other people’s trauma becomes one’s own.
Compassion fatigue has a positive sound to it. It seems almost noble. It’s a term that suggests, “Oh, she is such a caring person that she gave too much. It took a toll on her.” Or, “he’s such a compassionate person that he gave it all to others.” From this perspective, it seems as though compassion fatigue is experienced by generous people who care more for others than they do for themselves. Framing compassion fatigue in this way makes it seem like it’s something for which we should strive: to give until it hurts.
I want to suggest that this thing called compassion fatigue really isn’t about compassion. It’s essentially about living in an imbalanced way. And, yes: I should know because I’ve been there.
The word compassion is taken from that Latin roots meaning to suffer with, or to feel deeply with another. Fundamentally, compassion is connected with empathy. Empathy is the experience of being able to recognize, understand, relate to, or in some way share the experience of another. When a person experiences empathy for others, the person enters the experience of others. At the same time, essential to compassion and empathy is the ability to feel, to recognize one’s own feelings, and to understand one’s own emotional processes.
Compassion fatigue occurs when someone isn’t able to recognize and respond to one’s own feelings and emotional processes. Compassion fatigue ignores, suppresses, or discounts one’s own experience and identifies with the other to the detriment of self. Compassion fatigue is a devaluing of self and, in many cases, an attempt to find something of value for oneself in another person’s experience.
Essentially, what’s commonly called compassion fatigue isn’t about caring too much. Instead, it’s about not caring properly. A person is at risk for compassion fatigue when there is a lack of care and compassion for self.
Making sure that one gets sufficient rest, eats properly, exercises, and tends to interior needs, both psychological and spiritual, isn’t about being selfish. Instead, self compassion and basic care of the self means that one recognizes who she or he truly is as a human being. When basic care for self is not provided, we ultimately become a burden to others because we have left ourselves in a weak and vulnerable state.
A time when I experienced this thing called compassion fatigue was over the years I was the founder of a new congregation. Because my denomination didn’t have money available to support this venture, I chose to work full-time while also organizing a new congregation. I maintained my job responsibilities pretty well and, after four years, the congregation had over 120 people at Sunday services. It was a success all around, but I was a failure. I was weary, rigid, with little ability to feel, and frustrated by the smallest things. It took a few years to recover from the experience. My recovery was marked by very intentional time in prayer and meditation as well as more balanced living. My book, Stumbling Into Life’s Lessons, contains several essays on the process I undertook to restore balance to my life.
A number of years later, another experience could have led to compassion fatigue. For a five year period, I was the primary caregiver for my elderly mother who was blind and arthritic. She came to live with us over the years before her death. While the experience was much like being on-call all day every day, the lessons I learned about my need for spiritual grounding, exercise, and compassion for myself enabled me to be present for the long-haul of caring for another.
In the end, I’ve come to understand that compassion fatigue really isn’t about caring too much for others. It’s actually the problem of not being compassionate toward oneself. To tell the truth: I don’t think one can ever care too much about others. Instead, the problem is that we often don’t care in balanced ways for ourselves. No matter the needs of others, our ability to respond to them with compassion begins with the compassion we show to ourselves.
© 2013, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.