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.