The Dangers of Compassion Fatigue
Posted on January 27, 2017
Empathetic intensity, or the transfer of emotions and pain from a client experiencing trauma to an empathetic helper, puts us at risk for compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma. These are REAL risks and have a tremendous impact on our psychological, medical, and social health. In this post, we will examine compassion fatigue, which happens when empathetic intensity overwhelms our ability to engage effectively in the healing process.
In the cup analogy, compassion fatigue is a gradual process that occurs over a period of days, months, or years. Over this time, the pain and hurt expressed by clients fill up our cup faster than we can reduce the overall amount of pain and stress in that cup. As our cup fills, we become less sharp, we start to feel tired and fatigued, and we have trouble being empathetic with clients. In the extreme, we can go into crisis, lose their positive view of the world and people, and become ineffective in our work.
There is something we do in our work that requires an incredible amount of robustness and resiliency. While I have never seen a scientific explanation of how we do it, it is critical to our ability to engage and be a meaningful part of our clients’ healing and change journeys. Somehow, we can connect with the intense suffering and pain of others, while keeping enough space in our cups strategically implement best practice interventions and care.
It’s as if we have a protective coating around our hearts. We sit with one client and hear their stories of abuse, violence, and hardship. Our ability to connect with this pain at a very deep level reassures the client that we understand their struggles and that they are worthy of our respect, compassion, and time.
After these interactions, we seem to generally be able to shake off this exposure to pain and trauma. Not only do we not allow this pain to overwhelm us, but we also find the robustness to go right into another meeting with a client, where we might hear new stories of pain and hardship. We again shake this off and confront the next struggle and trauma with the same level of compassion and empathy.
I have not yet found anything in my research to explain how we can expose ourselves to intense levels of suffering without it filling up our cups. Everything that I read shows that the contagious nature of emotions should overwhelm us and prevent us from meeting clients’ pain and suffering with hope and positive regard. There’s something very special and unusual about people who can maintain a positive worldview and a sense of hope for the future when they confront the traumas that impact people they care about so deeply.
While this ability is almost superhuman, many of us have at one time or the other experienced compassion fatigue. Maybe we feel like we don’t have enough time in the day to give the clients everything we want to give them. Other times, we might know what they need, but there may not be a resource in the community to help them reach their goals. Additionally, hearing struggle after trauma after hardship can just wear us down, especially if there are not enough positive client outcomes to offset the setbacks and difficulties.
The most common impact of compassion fatigue is that, as our cup fills up with the negative life experiences of our clients, our worldview can start to become cynical. When this happens, things like homelessness, our political reality, racism, poverty, and other social problems can seem especially overwhelming. It might look like these issues may never end, and that we have little power to make any meaningful change. No matter how hard we work, tomorrow there will be homelessness, tomorrow there will be poverty, tomorrow a child will be abused, tomorrow a person of color will experience racism, and tomorrow a family will go to bed hungry.
Compassion fatigue makes the negatives of our work outweigh the incredible accomplishments of our clients. It hides our impact from our own eyes, and can make us feel insignificant. The fact that compassion fatigue happens over time can also make it difficult for us to realize that the trauma we face in our work is gradually filling up our cup, and having more and more of a negative impact on our health and world view.
While I have come to conclude that most of us “should” be struggling with compassion fatigue, the reality I see on the ground is much different. Instead of hopelessness and resignation, I find passionate people all across the country who have dedicated their lives to their communities and those that are struggling. You are a freak of nature!
I want to open up the comments today for you to share any experiences you have had with compassion fatigue. Also, please share ways that you counteract all the negative stories and hardships you hear on a regular basis with the positive aspects of your work and life in general. Please take care of yourselves!