Well-Being//

What Is “Compassion Fatigue,” and How Can We Avoid It?

Emotional labor can cause burnout too.

Courtesy of Andrii Yalanskyi / Shutterstock
Courtesy of Andrii Yalanskyi / Shutterstock

Call me any time.” “Let me help you.” “I’m here for you, no matter what.” If you’re a compassionate person, you probably find yourself reciting these phrases without second thought. Empathy and kindness are core human virtues, but what happens when helping others results in overextending yourself? If this sounds familiar, you may suffer from “compassion fatigue.”

Compassion fatigue is a concept marked by emotional depletion due to taking care of others, a phenomenon especially common to caregivers and those with care-related careers, Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., a mental health educator and author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, tells Thrive. A self-described “recovering overfunctioner,” Mathieu has dedicated the past 17 years of her life working with individuals on ways to combat burnout from emotional strain in both personal and professional spheres.

What are the signs?

Compassion fatigue may look different at work and at home, according to Mathieu.

At work, signs include:

  • Becoming angry with co-workers.
  • Feeling frustrated due to overcommitment.
  • Increased workplace gossip.
  • Increased negativity.

At home, signs include:

  • Under-responding to crises of loved ones.
  • Not having the energy to be there for someone.
  • Social withdrawal.

With these red flags in mind, how can we combat compassion fatigue? Here is some expert-backed advice:

1. Be mindful about media

Netflix may sound like a nice way to decompress, but consider what content you’re consuming before pressing play. “I won’t watch a trauma show on Netflix if I have done work with trauma victims all day. It just doesn’t allow me to reset and refuel,” Mathieu tells Thrive.

Reflect on your day so you can decide what media is most appropriate to enjoy. If you’re in the medical field and feel stressed taking care of patients all day, for example, don’t go home and watch Grey’s Anatomy. Instead, consider reading a book before bed that’s completely unrelated to your work. Prioritize restoration. 

2. Practice self-care — but not just on the weekends

“What is self-care? Is it white-knuckling through a week and collapsing on a yoga mat at the end of the week? I don’t think that works for any of us,” Mathieu tells Thrive.

A key aspect of avoiding compassion fatigue is feeling that your work is “sustainable and rewarding,” says Mathieu. If the workweek is unbearable, it doesn’t matter how nice your weekends are — you won’t be able to fully make up for the emotional depletion.

Mathieu suggests starting small with “micro-movements” — or as we call them at Thrive, Microsteps — even if that means showing up somewhere early just to add a few moments of silence and reflection into your day. “Those moments feel more restorative for me than any time spent on a beach or at a spa,” she tells Thrive.

3. Develop “exquisite empathy”

There is a such thing as caring too much, and if overextending yourself is your weakness, then exquisite empathy may be your answer. Exquisite empathy, a term coined by psychotherapy researchers Richard Harrison and Marvin Westwood at the University of British Columbia, refers to the idea of finding internal balance, even in the midst of emotionally difficult situations. 

Mathieu calls this “finding equanimity,” or an ability to return to your baseline. “We feel things, and they may be good or bad or overwhelming, but we learn to return to our healthy zone right away instead of being dysregulated by what we hear,” she tells Thrive. According to Mathieu, the best ways to develop exquisite empathy is through proper sleep, mindful meditation, balancing our workload, and developing a sense of confidence and competence in the work we do through ample training.

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