Defining Compassion Fatigue

You need Adobe Flash Player to view some content on this site.

Click to install Adobe Flash Player

Caregivers are often drawn to their profession because they can relate to others’ experiences or because they have a passion for helping others. If, however, they neglect to care for themselves while they are caring for others, they may take on too heavy a load—and they can develop compassion fatigue. Think of secondhand smoke. Though one person may be a nonsmoker, if he or she spends a lot of time near smokers, cigarettes can still cause harmful physical effects—even if the person doesn’t directly inhale the smoke. Learning how to manage compassion fatigue can protect you from those “secondhand” effects of traumatic experiences.

Caregivers seek to make positive impacts in the lives of those they serve.

As a Family Program employee or volunteer, you likely possess a passion for helping and tending to others. Caregivers are drawn to the field for several different reasons. Perhaps they have developed a strong passion for the job or relate to others’ struggles based on experiences they’ve overcome in their own lives. In other cases, a caregiver may have acquired the helping role in his or her own family. Some may have been raised in homes where caregiving is expected as part of the moral fiber of the family.

Regardless of their individual experiences, caregivers share many qualities. They generally love their work, have strong feelings of empathy, and have a passion to help. It can be quite gratifying to help another person through his or her difficulties. The feeling that you have made a positive impact on someone else’s life can be a great joy. For many, the work is a calling rather than a job.

“Trauma stewardship” involves a caregiver’s ability to remain differentiated from the person being helped.

Caregivers may experience a deep connection to others that brings about a deeper meaning in their own lives. Sometimes, however, this ability to keenly empathize with and support others can drain a caregiver’s emotional reserves. The term “trauma stewardship” (coined by researchers Laura van Dernoot Lipsky and Connie Burk) is a powerful reminder that those who witness others’ suffering have a sense of responsibility to demonstrate trustworthiness and care. At the same time, they must recognize that the sufferer’s pain does not belong to them. Caregivers must remain differentiated.

For a caregiver, “differentiation” means recognizing the emotional border between the self and the other. Helpers are often drawn to their various fields because of a personal experience. While this can make the helper more compassionate, empathetic, and insightful, he or she can also risk blurring the lines between his or her own experience and that of the other person. Being differentiated means understanding that separateness and those differences. It’s also important for a caregiver to understand that each person experiences life in different ways. We can never truly know another’s experience. All people respond to trauma, tragedy, and loss in their own unique way.

Compassion fatigue results from prolonged empathetic exposure to others’ stress.

Psychologist Dr. Charles Figley defines compassion fatigue as a “state of exhaustion and dysfunction (biologically, psychologically, and socially) as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.” He also refers to it as a “disorder that affects those who do their work well.”

People serving in caregiving roles are exposed to a great deal of traumatic subject matter. All supporters—from first responders to compassionate listeners, helpers, counselors, chaplains, and medical professionals—can be vulnerable to neglecting their own needs.

Click to open interactivity Put your own oxygen mask on first.

Put your own oxygen mask on first.

You need Adobe Flash Player to view some content on this site.

Click to install Adobe Flash Player

Compassion fatigue can be one of the costs of caring.

As a Family Program staff member, you are continually dealing with traumatic events. You work directly with family members and the various degrees of distress involved in the deployment cycle. When there is a tragedy or loss, the ripple effect becomes significant. Those who are charged with serving family members are frequently hearing of traumatic events, including loss of life through battle, suicide, or serious injuries. In addition to dealing with their own personal reactions, caregivers often put their own needs aside to support those affected by the trauma. If there is not a self-care plan in place, the combination of empathy and exposure to traumatic events can lay the groundwork for compassion fatigue.