Finding the Balance within Compassion

How do you Show Compassion but not Experience Fatigue?

Being caring and compassionate is a fundamental part of human functioning and well-being. Dalai Lama said, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion”. Both the giver and the receiver of compassion benefit. Compassion has been demonstrated in research to increase happiness, decrease depression, promote social connection, improve relationships and well-being, assist positive ageing and much more. Sounds great, but what’s the catch?…  Compassion fatigue. A term originally coined by Dr Charles Fiddley in 1992, describes the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from anyone in a caring role, professionally or personally, leaving the individual with a decreased ability to care. When left untreated, compassion fatigue may have serious mental and physical health, or legal and ethical implications. Minimising the risk of compassion fatigue is as essential as compassion itself.

How do we Find the Balance in Compassion, to Avoid Compassion Fatigue?

We look to the ABC’s of prevention, developed by the American Institute of Stress, to help us understand how we can combat compassion fatigue:


Learn the signs, and your predisposing risk factors (e.g., nature of job, living conditions, social supports). Knowing signs and symptoms and continuing to check in with yourself can help you better prevent and manage compassion fatigue

An Individual Fatigued

Symptoms include:

  • Chronic exhaustion
  • Reduced feelings of sympathy or empathy
  • Dreading working or taking care of another and feeling guilty as a result
  • Feelings of irritability, anger, anxiety
  • Depersonalisation
  • Hypersensitivity or complete insensitivity to emotional material
  • Headaches
  • Feelings of inequity toward the therapeutic relationship
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Impaired decision-making
  • Problems in personal relationships
  • Poor work-life balance
  • Diminished sense of career fulfilment

Practicing self-care is a critical method to combat compassion fatigue. To be able to care for others, you must first learn to care for yourself. Spend some time thinking about what ‘fills your cup’ and develop a plan to prioritise and incorporate them into your routine. Self-care may be:

  • Identifying workplace strategies (support groups, mental health days, routine check in, or mindfulness breaks)
  • Engaging in personal hobbies
  • Positive coping strategies (meditation, walking, talking with a friend), and letting go of negative coping strategies (e.g., self-medicating with drugs and alcohol)
  • Develop your internal resources and resiliency through mindfulness practices

Setting emotional boundaries can be an essential way to incorporate balance. Emotional boundaries is to be able to remain compassionate, empathetic, and supportive of others without becoming overly involved, and taking on another person’s pain. Remember it is okay to step out of the ‘helper/ rescuer’ role every now and then.


Cultivate healthy friendships outside of work. Having support from co-workers is important, however, it is equally important to maintain healthy relationships outside of work. Allowing for connection separate from your work situation creates space for emotional and professional relief.  Ensure the friendships you have are positive, not fuellingyour stress.

If you find yourself identifying with symptoms of compassion fatigue, consider seeking out professional support i.e., GP, psychologist or counsellor.

Compassion Fatigue Chart

Remember, you don’t just wake up one day and stop caring. Compassion fatigue is a gradual, layered process as seen in the chart. Take the time to be compassionate toward yourself, recognise and validate your experience that has led to compassion fatigue, stay aware and understand the impact, and seek support as early as possible. Even mother theresa was cautious when it came to compassion fatigue. She required her Nun’s to restore themselves emotionally by taking leave for a full year every 4-5 years. If Mother Theresa can find the balance within compassion, you can too!

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