Burnout is on the rise. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen burnout steadily increasing and affecting the wellbeing of thousands of people. At this point, many people are aware of burnout and how it can impact our life. But one side of burnout is not widely recognized. This is compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is the silent lurker in the lives of psychologists, therapists, and anyone working on the service of others. But, it is sometimes met with stigma. Particularly as these professionals are equipped with the knowledge and tips to help themselves.
But some forget one crucial thing: therapists and psychologists are also humans.
What is Compassion Fatigue or Empathy Burnout?
Compassion fatigue, also called empathy burnout, is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion. It leads to a diminished ability to empathize with others or feel compassion towards others). In essence, sometimes people can get to a point where they reach an emotional and physical fatigue because of caring too much.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue includes a wide array of symptoms similar to those of general burnout. Some predominant symptoms of empathy burnout are:
What Causes Compassion Fatigue?
Many factors could lead to empathy burnout, but the most prevalent factors are lack of self-care, work-life balance, and setting boundaries. Another critical factor in the development of compassion fatigue is vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma can occur when engaging and empathizing with trauma survivors without setting personal boundaries.
Who Is At Risk? 2 Examples
People that are at risk of developing compassion fatigue include (but are not limited to) nurses, teachers, social workers, child protection workers, caregivers, firefighters, doctors and mental health professionals.
Compassion Fatigue in Counselors and Nurses
We can think of counselors as having two sides to the same coin. One side is the caring side that wants to help others, while the other side knows what they have to do to prevent burnout. But these two sides can be conflicting.
For instance, take a counselor that thinks: “people need me, so I need to put my needs aside so that I can help them” or “other people are going through much worse, and I am the one supposed to help them.” This mindset and caring side of psychologists is well-meaning and part of the job, but if sustained, it can be jeopardizing their own mental and physical health.
Likewise, it is common for nurses to put their personal lives and needs aside to help as many people as possible, especially during the pandemic. This behavior, though heroic, can lead to burnout and render the health worker feeling helpless and depleted from compassion.
Is Compassion Fatigue Possible in Relationships?
Compassion fatigue usually occurs to people in helping professions, but it can happen to any person regardless of career. For example, some people in relationships might develop compassion fatigue due to empathizing too much with the other person.
Take a woman in a relationship with a man that is going through a depression episode. The woman might be trying to support her significant other and to empathize with his struggles. She might have to take extra chores in the house and balance this with her work. She might even need to suppress her own emotions and feelings. This can lead to developing empathy fatigue due to a lack of boundaries and communication on her personal needs. Support in relationships is essential, but it is vital to craft a delicate balance between helping those you care about while also caring for yourself and your needs.
How To Prevent Compassion Fatigue with Self-Care
It can be challenging to care for others while also caring for yourself. Even when psychologists and mental health workers know all the tricks, it isn't easy to help yourself.
So what can people in helping professions do to prevent burnout? Balance is the key.
Self-care and setting boundaries are the two pillars to follow to prevent burnout. Helping professionals are humans, not superheroes without personal needs and struggles. Albeit challenging, practicing acceptance and internalizing that some things are out of our scope of control is fundamental. Sometimes it is humanly impossible to help everyone, and before helping others, you need to think about your wellbeing. Because if we do not take care of ourselves, we might not be able to take care of others in the long term.
If you feel that you are developing compassion fatigue, we encourage you to look for help. As we all know, seeking help is a sign of bravery, not weakness. Our doors are always open, and we are always happy to help.
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