Compassion fatigue describes the emotional distancing or apathy experienced by a person who works primarily in a caring role such as psychology, social work, nursing and first responders. Although the majority of research which has looked into compassion fatigue centres around occupational settings, people who are active in social justice matters or are care partners are also vulnerable to experiencing compassion fatigue.
Symptoms of compassion fatigue are both emotional and physical. They could include a disruption to sleep or appetite, isolation, irritability, aggression, low mood, and higher reports of stress and anxiety, and lack of motivation.
How does Compassion Fatigue Develop?
There are many factors which contribute to compassion fatigue. We will discuss a few of the most important ones:
The Balance of Resources
The balance of resources (I.e., practical, personal and energy) relative to the demands placed on a person will influence how a person perceives the threat of meeting another person’s needs and being emotionally available. For example, if someone has very little resources to cope with a high load of care, they will experience stress caused by inadequate tools to cope.
The Way we Empathise
The way a person processes shared emotion can influence personal distress. Some research suggests that enmeshing with, or adopting another’s strong negative emotions such as fear, sadness, worry, or shock; results in an inability to separate one’s own experiences and be able to take an active role in supporting them where they are. This inability to separate one’s self can cause distress and even avoidance as a way to protect their own wellbeing.
Outcomes of being Empathetic
When people invest their own personal resources and effort into the care of another person, they rely on positive feedback and acknowledgement to fuel compassion satisfaction and fill our empathy bank. Examples of positive feedback might include a change in emotion “feeling a bit better” or expressing gratitude for their efforts. A lack of positive feedback or even receiving negative feedback can result in apathy, frustration or other negative emotions, and reduced motivation to offer further support.
How does Compassion Fatigue affect Personal Relationships?
- Someone who is experiencing compassion fatigue may be observed to have a “short fuse” and become emotionally liable due to a reduction in emotional distress tolerance. They may report feeling like they don’t have their own emotional needs met and become irritable when trying to express this to others.
- Additionally, people with compassion fatigue may appear cold towards their partners’ personal concerns and are unable to find the emotional energy to be empathetic towards their situations.
- They may begin to blur boundaries between work and home, which is manifested in the form of role confusion. For example, rather than supporting their partner with empathy and respect to solve their own problems, they dismiss the emotional impact of their situation and go into “fix it mode” by taking on the role of rescuer. Often this is an attempt to avoid sitting in distress because they find it too overwhelming, and become accustomed to feeling like they must be responsible for others’ wellbeing.
What to do if you or your Partner is Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?
- Acknowledge in yourself or in your partner that there is a change in the caring relationship.
- Reassess realistic expectations about your role as a partner and be open to communicate how you like to receive support and personal responsibility for yourself. Healthy boundaries with your partner are important. This includes developing coping strategies to healthily process emotions during stressful times.
- Engage in a self-care routine. This may include having a healthy diet, sleep schedule, and enough enjoyment time which reduces your stress levels and meets your body’s needs.
- Restock or broaden your resources. This may include social or professional support, personal skills or strategies, and replenishing your energy resources to cope with the stress being caused by caring for a person.
- Adjust the way you process emotional sharing. Research suggests that by acknowledging and empathising with the other person, whilst also understanding that these experiences are different from one’s own, individuals are able to more accurately validate emotions and generate appropriate solutions to relieve suffering.
Coetzee, S. K., & Laschinger, H. K. S. (2018). Toward a comprehensive, theoretical model of compassion fatigue: An integrative literature review. Nursing & Health Sciences, 20(1), 4-15. https://doi.org/10.1111/nhs.12387