It’s Possible to Care So Much for So Long That You Run Out of Caring

a person passed out on the lawn, exhausted
Image by poppet with a camera / CC BY

It’s something they warn all new therapists about, the plague of people in the helping professions: Compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue is also sometimes known as secondary traumatic stress disorder or vicarious stress.

It’s a lot like it sounds. Compassion fatigue occurs when you spend so much time taking care of other people, doing emotional labor for them, providing support, that eventually you run out of it. And what you’re left with is a feeling of exhaustion, emptiness, and even apathy. This can happen in instances when you were initially quite glad to help, even enjoying the process of providing support for quite some time.

It can be distressing to experience, especially for folks who pride themselves on taking good care of others. Folks for whom being good to people isn’t just something they do, but something they are. 

Therapists are especially at risk, for obvious reasons. As are healthcare professionals of all other stripes. Taking care of people can be intensely draining, and there are few folks who can go full tilt without experiencing battles with burnout and emotional exhaustion.

But like most other phenomena, compassion fatigue isn’t something that only affects professionals. In fact, amateur caregivers are also at risk.

It can affect folks caring for a dying relative. Or someone helping a friend who has experienced serious trauma recover from that experience.

Compassion fatigue is also a risk for anyone who has someone near and dear to them who is recovering from being abused or is being abused currently. Whether this abuse comes at the hands of a toxic workplace, a relative, or a lover, when someone close to us is being abused, the vicarious strain can easily take a toll on us.

So What Do You Do If You’re Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?

Typically, caregivers are prone to sacrificing basic self-care to take care of others. It’s just something they tend to do.

So in a situation where you’re experiencing compassion fatigue as a caregiver (amateur or professional), that’s typically the best place to look for ways to help remedy the situation.

As I mentioned in an earlier piece, self-care and exactly what that can entail can look very different to each person.

But roughly the difference between setting self-care as low priority or high priority is something like this:

Low self-care priority: Once I’ve taken care of every other important person and task in my life, then I’ll start taking care of myself.

High self-care priority: I will take care of myself, and then I can take better care of every other person and task in my life.

Self-care can feel selfish, especially if you’re used to putting yourself last, but in practice, we are best able to help other people when we’re in good shape (emotionally, physically, and otherwise), which involves taking good care of ourselves.

Most people could benefit from making sure they’re getting enough sleep, drinking enough water, and getting enough exercise.

People suffering from compassion fatigue also typically need to make sure they set good emotional boundaries with others in their life while they recover. And if possible, they recruit others to help with the caregiving so that they can step away and take a bit of time to themselves, even if it’s only a very short time.

I’ve also found journaling privately very helpful whenever I’m experiencing compassion fatigue — both as a way of organizing my thoughts and processing in a safe place and serving as a record for how bad my symptoms are so that I can catch a bout of compassion fatigue in the early stages, before it gets less manageable.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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