There Are Hard Things Happening in the World — Do You Have Compassion Fatigue?

The year 2020 hasn’t been kind to humanity.

From the changes and hardships that came with the COVID-19 pandemic to the fight for justice amidst the Black Lives Matter movement to the everyday occurrences of violence and trauma, there is a lot of tough stuff going on — and it’s likely affecting us all.

Many people don’t realize that even if they aren’t directly traumatized by the current events, they can still experience something called Compassion Fatigue. This quote below explains it well:

“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. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”
– C. Figley, 1995

Do you feel this way right now?

The “Cost” Of Caring For Others in Emotional Pain

Even if you haven’t lost a job or a loved one to COVID-19, even if you haven’t been personally affected by the injustices against black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), even if you aren’t aware of someone suffering from violence or trauma, and even if your life is relatively really good right now . . . you can still experience Compassion Fatigue (also called  “vicarious traumatization” or “secondary traumatization”) as you observe and experience others suffering from the consequences of traumatic events.

This is because you care and have empathy for the people and world around you. 

While the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue are commonly associated with “caregivers” — such as healthcare professionals, paramedics, counselors — they can occur within anyone who experiences direct or secondary exposure to traumatic events.

These days, that’s a lot of us.

As we embrace empathy toward others who are experiencing trauma in various ways, it’s important to also recognize Compassion Fatigue in ourselves and learn how to manage the symptoms.

Compassion Fatigue Is Not “Burnout”

It’s important to note that the more common feeling of “burnout” is not the same as Compassion Fatigue.

Burnout tends to happen over a period of time in the following stages:

  • Enthusiasm
  • Stagnation
  • Frustration
  • Apathy

Perhaps you’ve experienced this in a job before. Burnout is associated with a heavy workload and stress, not trauma.

Compassion Fatigue, on the other hand, is a process that may take weeks or even years to surface, according to F. Oshberg, MD, in his article titled When Helping Hurts. In this case, one’s ability to care for others diminishes due to the chronic emotional weight of seeing others experience trauma.

The symptoms of Compassion Fatigue may include:

  • Exhaustion and irritability
  • Increased emotional intensity
  • Decreased cognitive ability
  • Impaired behavior and judgment
  • Isolation and loss of morale
  • Loss of self-worth
  • Impacted identity, worldview, and spirituality
  • Loss of hope and meaning/discouragement
  • Anger toward casual events

As you navigate the difficult circumstances of recent months, do you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself? If so, you can take action to manage Compassion Fatigue.

Strategies for Managing Compassion Fatigue

Again, you’re likely experiencing the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue because you are in a situation in which you have empathy toward a person or group of people experiencing trauma.

Empathy is a beautiful thing. Don’t try to rid yourself of Compassion Fatigue by hardening yourself toward what’s happening around you. Instead, let’s discuss healthy ways to manage Compassion Fatigue while still offering empathy and care toward others.

1. Be aware and identify your feelings.

With increased self-awareness, you can identify when you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. Consider keeping a journal or practicing mindful meditation or prayer.

2. Practice self-care and joyful activities.

“Self-care” is a buzzword these days, but it’s important to take a break from the realities of the world when needed. This may look like a day without social media and news, a weekend camping trip, or indulging in a gym membership. The point of self-care in this instance is not to spoil yourself with luxury; it is to find a regular, healthy mental and emotional break from what is heavy in your life. Even Mother Teresa mandated that her nuns take off an entire year every 4-5 years so they could heal from the effects of their caregiving work!

3. Talk with someone.

You don’t have to process your feelings and symptoms alone. Consider talking regularly with a counselor or trusted confidant about what you’re experiencing. This person could even help hold you accountable in seeking the self-care activities mentioned above.

4. Set realistic expectations for yourself.

Recognize that you can’t fix everything and that carrying too many emotional burdens won’t help the person you’re hurting for. Set the expectation that you may, for example, advocate for someone experiencing trauma by volunteering or peacefully protesting against injustice. But that doesn’t mean you should carry guilt when you’re not actively doing those things, and doing so won’t help the situation. Set boundaries for yourself about what you can do that is helpful and meaningful.

We’re In This Together

As humans in 2020, we’re experiencing a new territory of trauma that social worker Brené Brown has referred to as a collective “Effing First Time” (FFT). Many of us are confused, tired, and hurting as the spotlight shines on many injustices and traumas in the world these days.

However, as we hurt together, we can also heal and move forward together.

Whether you are experiencing any sort of trauma firsthand or secondhand, there are resources in Sioux Falls and beyond to help you. Start by learning more about our work at the Compass Center, and please contact us anytime.

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