Are you finding it tough to be supportive when people are struggling? Does simply listening feel like a significant strain? Perhaps you feel emotionally exhausted or empty and just want to be alone. If you’re nodding “yes,” you might be experiencing what’s called compassion fatigue.
Over the years, compassion fatigue largely has been seen as an issue that affects caregivers and health-care workers. When people in these professions become overwhelmed by helping others, they run out of empathy and have nothing left to give. But it turns out that any of us can experience compassion fatigue—regardless of our profession or position.
“Compassion fatigue can be a state of exhaustion and dysfunction—biologically, physiologically, and emotionally—due to prolonged, cumulative exposure to stress,” says Sheriyse Williams, Ph.D., a therapist, professor, and lead consultant. This stress may be personal or professional, like a demanding job, lack of resources, or strained relationship, she says. Injustices experienced by marginalized populations are sources of ongoing and pervasive trauma, which can increase the likelihood of these populations experiencing compassion fatigue. It may also stem from what’s going on in your community or the world at large—the pandemic, economic ups and downs, violence, war, political division.
Compassion fatigue affects all areas of your life, including your ability to empathize with loved ones and colleagues. According to Williams, you might “feel overwhelmed, detached, numb, and emotionally disconnected.” You also might feel helpless and powerless. Physical symptoms include headaches, feeling tired and less productive, and struggling to sleep.
What might this look like at work? When a colleague stops by to discuss an issue, instead of listening intently, you keep working on whatever task is at hand, says Williams. Or when a team member says their whole family came down with the flu, instead of saying “I’m sorry,” you immediately worry about the additional workload. At home, when your partner starts talking about their tough day, you scroll through your phone.
Compassion fatigue can feel all-encompassing, notes Williams, but you can recover. Try some of these small steps. Don’t feel like you need to do everything at once. One small step can have a big impact.
It’s hard to be there for others when you’re feeling depleted yourself. Throughout the day, take several moments or minutes to regroup, Williams suggests. Step away from your desk to stretch your legs. Listen to a one-minute calming meditation. Before walking into your house after work, sit in your car and take deep belly breaths. A few moments of restoration can calm your body and mind, helping you to be more present.
Control what you can.
When we feel stressed, we often feel powerless. But you can take steps to feel more in control. Make a list of several things you can control, no matter how small they might be. And remember, even when something is beyond your control, you can control how you react to it and how you care for yourself.
Do what you love.
Activities that you love are restorative and lift your mood. These might include reading a book, baking, catching a movie, or even working in the yard. But chances are you’ve gotten away from them. Jot down a list of five to 10 things you want to do, from quick actions to longer experiences. Start by adding one to your calendar.
Make a to-don’t list.
We can’t eliminate stress from our lives, but with a bit of self-awareness, we can avoid adding to our stress. Check in with yourself about what you can tolerate, Williams says. Then explore what you might delete from your days, so you can boost your physical, emotional, and mental well-being. For example, say “no” to the morning news, that second cup of coffee, or scrolling through social media before bed.
Care without carrying.
Often, we become emotionally exhausted or exacerbate our fatigue when we take on other people’s pain and problems. But as Williams notes, we can care about what’s happening to someone without carrying the weight of their stress.
To stop yourself from absorbing another person’s heartache but still show empathy, you need to set boundaries. For example, you can practice authentic listening by giving them your full attention and validating their feelings (e.g., “That sounds really hard”). But set a time limit and clearly communicate how long you can talk, Williams says. You can also encourage the person to talk to a mental health professional about their issue, she says.
After the conversation, remind yourself: “It’s not my responsibility to carry this person’s difficult situation. I can be present and listen, and then move on.”
Give yourself grace.
When you are unable to be there for others, you may feel guilty—and beat yourself up. Instead of making yourself feel worse, acknowledge your emotions and extend yourself some grace, Williams says. Say something kind to yourself, such as “I’m tired but am taking on a lot, so no wonder I’m finding it difficult.” And remember, “the human experience isn’t perfect,” Williams says. “You are not alone in these struggles.”