You Care When It Seems No One Else Does
A young spouse from a developed nation moves to a developing country where a man with no legs and 12 fingers sits in his wheelchair every day at the red light on the main thoroughfare to work. When the light is red, he’s knocking on the windows he can reach begging for money. When the light turns green, he desperately tries to get out of the way of oncoming traffic. And the cycle goes on all day long. At the next light, there’s a mom with a baby on her back and one in tow. She says they have no food and wants some money to buy bread. You turn the corner and there is a group of young boys hanging out by the stop sign waiting for the next car to stop so they can bombard them with money requests. You’ve been told that they are begging on behalf of the local religious leaders and they will be beaten if they do not meet a target amount each day.
What are you to do? You could give each of them money every day on your way to and from work. So you do that, but you become annoyed that there is absolutely no change. That mom is still going to struggle to feed her kids, the 12 finger guy is still risking his life and the group of boys is still likely to be beat. You’re out there caring for them as much as you can and it doesn’t matter. Nothing has changed. So you stop caring. It’s too stressful to care. Being in the constant poverty and not being able to do anything about it hurts too much. You find that you’re cynical, apathetic, emotionally numb, and perhaps drinking more. This is compassion fatigue.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion Fatigue happens when your day-in and day-out environment is gut wrenching. You continually see and experience things that take an emotional toll on you. It is the gift and the curse of having strong empathy. You deeply feel the emotions of others. You vicariously experience their anger, fears and traumas. This empathic experience is so profound that it’s likely that you’ve tried to provide relief to a given situation or person, but it does no good. The situation is unchanged and the larger society prefers to ignore it. As a result, you begin to develop a negative outlook towards your work and/or the situation. You start to just not care. And yet you know that you should. It’s horrible, but what are you going to do about it? If you don’t care about it, it can’t stress you out. That is compassion fatigue.
Everyone, absolutely everyone who works and/or lives in an environment in which you overuse your compassion skills is at risk for developing the symptoms of compassion fatigue. It is not a disorder. It’s not something that you wake up one day and discover that you have. Symptoms are on a continuum and may take months, even years to develop. It is a normal, typical consequence to chronic stress and extreme empathic engagement. Think of it as a smoldering fire that eats away at your contentment and happiness.
I Can’t Change My Environment, So What Can I Do About It?
The very first step to managing your symptoms of compassion fatigue is to acknowledge its presence in your life. This simple acknowledgement will bring about a heightened awareness that you are a deeply caring person who needs to bring their self-care and care for others into better balance. It is possible to keep your commitment to making positive changes in the world while practicing meaningful self-care. Your resiliency can be nurtured so that you can recover from emotional exhaustion.
One of the best places to develop resiliency skills is with a skilled mental health professional. Adding an hour of therapeutic conversation to your weekly or monthly schedule will support your ability to process challenging situations and strengthen your resiliency.
My approach to treating compassion fatigue is two fold; it is rooted in evidence based practices such as positive psychology and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy but also informed by intimate personal experience. The bulk of my overseas experience has been in developing countries where the magnitude of human rights violations is incomprehensible. I’ve worked side by side with aid workers trying to bring relief to a variety of desperate situations only to have those efforts diminished to the point of being inconsequential. Let me use both my expertise and experience to guide you to a place where taking care of others and yourself simultaneously is possible.
I think I have the symptoms of compassion fatigue, but…
This work is my life’s passion. I’m too ashamed to admit I feel this way.
Compassion fatigue is a normal human response to chronic, unrelenting stress. You do the work and see things that other people can’t even tolerate hearing about. It is your mind’s way of protecting you when the realities of what you do and see become too much. It does not mean that you’re a bad person or that there is something wrong with you. From the comfort and privacy of your home, we can work together to process these experiences and resulting feelings and then develop a self-care plan to help ease your symptoms.
I’ve lived with it for this long and I’m doing fine. It’s become who I am.
If you are someone who has been in the caregiving role for an extended period of time, it’s quite likely that you’ve been on the continuum of symptoms for a while. It may feel like it’s become a part of who you are. However, untreated compassion fatigue can lead to depression, sleep disruptions, intrusive thoughts, and even suicidal ideations. Talking to a therapist can help you to lay it all out there and plan a healthier way of moving forward.