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What is the Answer to Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue, a type of burnout, is a common problem among caregivers of all types ~ nurses, doctors, social workers, etc. It has become a more noticeable problem within the boomer generation as more and more individuals are taking on the care of an aging parent while being caught in the “sandwich generation”. They are still caring for their children when their parents begin to turn to them for assistance.

Compassion fatigue is the result of constant exposure to pain and suffering and the caregiver “feels” the pain of the person they are helping. Most caregivers are compassionate people by nature. This makes them excellent at their jobs but also prime candidates for compassion fatigue.

A person who is empathetic by nature, finds it difficult to turn off compassion when someone turns to them for help and support. I am one of those people and have suffered way too much because of it. I’m still recovering from a five-year period in which I was called upon to care for an aging parent, an ill husband, a friend going through a difficult divorce, a niece whose husband left her, a son whose heart was broken and dropped out of college, not to mention a new puppy, two cats and a garden! It’s not funny. Trust me, I know.

When everyone seems to want and need our understanding and support all at once, what are we to do? Who should I have turned away? At the time, it never occurred to me not to help, support and love these important people in my life.  I just gave… and gave… and gave until…you’ve got it…I developed compassion fatigue! It did not hit all at once. My ability to cope, to think, and to sleep began to diminish, day by day, week by week. I had the frequent feeling “I can’t do this anymore, I need a vacation, something has to stop.” I began to have minor health problems and high blood pressure. I kept attributing it to stress, but that didn’t seem to exactly fit. I kept waiting for the problems to be resolved, for the people I was helping to get better. Some did, but I was still in a predominantly care giving role.

My life was out of balance and ultimately, I just stopped…everything. I stopped taking calls, stopped trying to help, stopped trying to fix everyone, stopped working (fortunately I’m self-employed), stopped moving.  I shut down. I was numb, in a fog, depressed, perpetually tired and really not sure what the heck was going on. I stared into space for weeks. I knew I had a problem but wasn’t sure what it was. I wondered why I couldn’t cope and why I couldn’t make myself feel better.

This is compassion fatigue. My first self-diagnosis was burnout – and compassion fatigue is a kind of burnout so I wasn’t completely off the mark. Defining it as compassion fatigue is more likely to bring about a cure because then the real problem can be addressed. Burn out is often too much doing and going and working, etc. Compassion fatigue is burnout of a particular set of emotions ~ those used in caring for others ~ compassion, empathy, caring.

A total collapse can be avoided, but it takes self-awareness at a time when it is difficult to think about ourselves. For those of us who are empathetic and compassionate to a fault, it is necessary to learn how to find caring balance where we care enough to be helpful but not so much as to destroy ourselves. We are often those very people who don’t know how to be compassionate to ourselves or care adequately for ourselves and that is where we must begin.

This is the first in a series of blogs on how to avoid and recover from compassion fatigue. Stay tuned.

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11 Responses to What is the Answer to Compassion Fatigue?

  1. Frances Walters on May 24, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    This article came at a time when I really neeedeed to understand my feelings about caring for my Father….

  2. sanderdoe on May 24, 2010 at 10:44 pm

    Caring for a parent is difficult on so many levels. In addition to the actual stress of caring giving, there is always the baggage that is inherent in all parent/child relationships. Things that bugged us when we were kids will bug us even more as our parents age. I will be writing more this week about what we can do to cope with compassion fatigue but being aware of it is often half the battle. Thank you for commenting Frances!

  3. Diane Bjorling on May 25, 2010 at 4:14 am

    A well done article about something most of us don’t even like admitting, maybe because to do so would mean that we are not superhuman as others at times think we are.
    While i cant relate to the parent/child aspect, i can relate to other situations in my life where the stress, the caring the empathy has been an overload to all the senses.

    Looking forward to hearing how you found ways to deal with this.

  4. [...] I wrote about my own personal experience with compassion fatigue in the post “What is the Answer to Compassion Fatigue” and hopefully described it in a way that is recognizable to those of you who are feeling the stress [...]

  5. Dale Carter on May 26, 2010 at 11:08 pm

    Thanks for highlighting this problem and sharing your own personal story.
    I realized a few years back that my mother was constantly sucked into being primary caregiver to relative after relative.
    She would complain about it constantly. Despite my suggestions to cut back on helping, she never said no, and I think after my father died, being there for others gave her a sense of purpose.
    A couple of times, it continued until the other person died. But, often, my mother would get sick and have to stop. It’s like her body decided for her to stop.
    Finally, after she moved into independent living, she is out of this cycle.
    Compassion fatigue is definitely a challenge!

  6. Dale Carter on May 26, 2010 at 11:11 pm

    I typed my Website url incorrectly in previous comment. I corrected it in this reply.

  7. Dianne Purdie on May 28, 2010 at 8:03 am

    Wow! I couldn’t have done all that. I would have become depressed long before you did. You have such an open heart and really can’t turn that off. I have a very open heart as well but have always felt that my own cup must be full as you can’t give from an empty cup so I have always tried to fill myself first. Not always easy….

  8. sanderdoe on May 28, 2010 at 11:38 am

    I have fought that for years Dianne – it still feels a bit like an uphill battle depending on the day! Thanks for your comments. You are a wise woman! And Diane, I always appreciate your perspective. My mother was an “unofficial” caregiver too and taught me well! She gave anything that lived and breathed a home if they needed one, but didn’t have a clue how to give to herself.

  9. [...] I wrote about my own personal experience with compassion fatigue in the post “What is the Answer to Compassion Fatigue” and hopefully described it in a way that is recognizable to those of you who are feeling the stress [...]

  10. Cheryl Parker on September 30, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    I have become too familiar with caretaker fatigue. My 91 year-old mother was living with and starting to decline with more dementia problems when my husband became mysteriously ill. A year ago, everything got extremely worse. There are now some insights into my husband’s problems but that has only come after a suicide attempt and a near fatal heart attack.

    Not only have I experienced this fatigue, I grieved the loss of our relationship and the activities we have been involved in together for several years.

    I will soon start receiving respite care and have relief from maintaining a 24/7 vigil. I count it as an answer to prayer, the very best way to cure fatigue problems.

  11. wildred on October 27, 2011 at 4:54 pm

    When I read this it was almost as if you had asked me how I was feeling. I’m going through my own years of multiple illnesses, divorces, etc. etc. As a caregiver myself, I’m looking forward to tips on how to deal with “compassion fatigue”.

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