Compassion Fatigue

Written by: Morgan Blair, Founder and Creative Director of Unpolished Journey

First, before writing an entire blog post on compassion fatigue we need to define what it means. Compassion fatigue is officially defined as:

“a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper.”

Dr. Charles Figley

In others words, caring too much can sometimes hurt. When we take on the role of caregiver, caring  the struggles of others, without practicing self-care problems can arise. We can turn apathetic towards the person we are helping. We can start isolating from others. We can even develop PTSD through experiencing secondarily the trauma of those we are helping. Most commonly, compassion fatigue arises in professionals dealing directly with people’s struggles, such as mental health workers, doctors, nurses, missionaries, etc. But it can also affect people who are naturally very empathetic people. They feel others pain and commonly find themselves in positions of trying to comfort, support, and help others. Now that we have defined compassion fatigue the question at hand then becomes, how can we avoid it?

I am a very empathetic person. I know this. I feel other’s pain on a deep level. This is not a bad thing. It has brought me to work in the mental health field as well as start Unpolished Journey whose mission is to bring together a community of people who have an array of struggles. I find my empathetic nature to be a gift, but it is a powerful gift that needs to be practiced with caution.  To be too empathetic leads to compassion fatigue. For me, compassion fatigue can lead to unhealthy behaviors and tendencies to isolate. So, how do I balance working with those in distress and my own mental health?  The answer is…Self-care!

Self-care is the mother of balance. Self-care keeps us rejuvenated and healthily distanced from those we are helping, or those we love who are struggling. Self-care doesn’t just look like taking a bubble bath at the end of a long day or taking a walk to clear your mind. Self-care can mean stepping away from a conversation that has become too overwhelming or unhealthy. It can mean taking a day off because you know that you are not in a good mental space to go into work.  It can mean distancing from those in your life that require too much compassion from you.  It can mean taking those hard steps to say, “this relationship is too much for me right now and I need to take from time apart” or “I care about my clients but have to remember that this is a professional relationship”.  Self-care is ANY action taken to help better your own mental health.

Self-care is not selfish. In fact, it is the opposite because taking care of yourself keeps your cup full.  You can only pour into another from a full cup.  If you don’t practice self-care your cup runs dry and then you have no compassion to offer anyone else, let alone yourself.  This is why in order to avoid compassion fatigue we need to make sure we are caring for ourselves in whatever way we need. So, let’s do something today that will better your mental health for tomorrow.

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