Do you ever feel like you simply can’t listen to another word about a difficult experience or loss? You may be experiencing compassion fatigue.
Therapists, nurses, doctors, nannies, childcare workers, nursing home caregivers and other people who focus on helping on a regular basis often experience compassion fatigue. Listening to heartbreak and caring about the troubles of others can be stressful and emotionally tiring.
The emotionally sensitive, who are keenly aware of the emotions of others, are at risk for compassion fatigue even if they aren’t in a care-taking situation. Driving past an animal shelter or seeing a homeless person on the street can bring about overwhelming compassion and over time result in compassion fatigue.
Caring deeply day after day can be emotionally exhausting.
When people are driven to help others, all their relationships may be helping ones. This can be a comfortable role and they may not value more equal relationships. Without a balance where others give back to them, the emotional drain is likely to be constant.
Compassion fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from care giving. Symptoms of compassion fatigue include excessive blaming, bottled up emotions, isolation, poor self-care, apathy, chronic physical problems, complaining, compulsive behaviors, difficulty concentrating, mental and physical fatigue, and irritability.
Leading traumatologist Eric Gentry suggests that people who are attracted to care giving often enter the field already compassion fatigued. A strong identification with helpless, suffering, or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive for going into such jobs and professions. Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Gentry says authentic, ongoing self-care practices are often absent from their lives. There are many emotionally sensitive people who fit this pattern.
Not taking in support and kindness from others can leave the emotionally sensitive feeling empty and drained. But in situations where others offer help, they may feel anxious and uncomfortable. They see their role as being the helper, not the helpee. They may judge themselves as weak or with some other negative term when they cannot keep giving to others. To need is not acceptable, perhaps because of what they were taught in childhood. Even to intellectually understand that everyone needs compassion and caring, if you were taught differently as a child, is a difficult concept to accept.
Even when they have give and take relationships, emotionally sensitive people may focus on what they can give and not on what is given to them, so they don’t take in the support of others. Such a situation would still result in a compassion deficit. There could also be a feeling of being apart from others, not fitting in. The emotionally sensitive may not be aware of holding themselves apart as a way of avoiding the difficulty of relationships and thus may believe they are not like others or that something is wrong with them. This results in pulling further back.
Being willing to accept help from others can bring about vulnerability in the emotionally sensitive. Having been hurt by others, they may resist that vulnerability and isolate or hide behind the helper role. In that way the emotionally sensitive may be alone though surrounded by people. They may feel empty because they don’t allow others to give to them.
When you listen to what should be an emotionally touching story and you feel nothing–that is likely compassion fatigue. So is wanting to hide from those who need or want or expect your help. You may feel like you just can’t cope anymore with the demands on you. Life may seem too difficult to manage.
Steps to Take
Establishing a routine of self-care is important to counteract compassion fatigue. Emotionally sensitive people are often prone to taking care of others but not themselves. This may seem unselfish, but it actually leads to being unable to care for others and emotional upset.
Self-care includes eating nutritious food, getting sufficient rest, exercise and taking medications as prescribed. But it also includes taking breaks, spending time with friends, and spending time doing rejuvenating activities–learning something new, playing games, traveling, or engaging in a hobby you love such as painting or gardening.
Doing something in nature is often particularly helpful.
Part of coping with the emotional drain of caring for and about others is to find the courage to be in equal relationships. Authentic, giving relationships that are honest help fill the emptiness and dissipate the aloneness. They refuel compassion for others and enjoyment in life.
Note to Readers: A compassion fatigue self-test and more information about compassion fatigue is available online. Many different authors have written books about compassion fatigue and most of the symptoms and solutions discussed above were based on information from their work and the information on the websites given above.
If you haven’t participated, please consider answering the questions on my new survey about being emotionally sensitive. Results will be given in a future post. Thank you!
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Last reviewed: 18 Jun 2012