5 Practical Strategies to Counter Compassion Fatigue

Feb 20, 2024

In my career as a therapist for individuals with mental health and substance abuse issues, I’ve noticed an uncomfortable truth in myself, in my colleagues, and even people in general. This uncomfortable truth is that our empathy and compassion, as wonderful as they are, can also be a source of stress and burnout. In fact, sometimes this wonderful ability to care for others can be a liability instead of a blessing. What is it about compassion and empathy that can cause us to feel frustrated, discouraged, and maybe even depressed?

Compassion and empathy are emotions that are important in helping us relate to and connect with others. We feel their highs and their lows. Along with this, we also have our own perspectives that help us perhaps see things patients can’t see, and perhaps even recognize choices that they might be making that we know will hurt them and even the ones around them. Meanwhile, some patients have chronic or cyclical conditions that are either hard to manage or face persistent challenges. Because of this we often experience the pain, frustration, trauma, and fear that others experience up close and personal. This is certainly a challenge for anyone, but if we are in a helping profession (such as a therapist, nurse, etc.), we’re exposed to this on a much more intense level. Not only are these types of professionals at risk, but also people who are caregivers of an elderly parent, a disabled child, or someone else who requires high levels of care and attention.

Before discussing five strategies that can help with compassion fatigue, I want to let whoever is reading this know that you’re awesome! This world needs people who care, people willing to do the hard things for and with others, and people who are willing to go the extra mile because there is goodness in their hearts. Remember that you are doing more than you realize, and very possibly have made a bigger difference than you are giving yourself credit for. So without further ado, here are the five strategies that I find helpful:

  1. Have meaningful and consistent self-care
  2. Recognize your limits
  3. Know when to ask for help
  4. Recognize potential toxicity in these relationships
  5. Know when to set or realign your personal boundaries

Have Meaningful and Consistent Self Care

Self-care is a cliché in this day and age, however, it is absolutely vital for recognizing and addressing our own needs. This means that we need to recognize when to put our mental, emotional, physical, social, and spiritual/existential needs first. Doing so doesn’t make you selfish. In fact, it will likely give you more energy to be there for others when you need to be. Look at different areas of your life you might be neglecting, and find a way to attend to that!

Recognize Limits

When we care about someone, we want to help them in any possible way we can. Could some of the stress and burnout you’re feeling be an indication that maybe you’re expecting unrealistic things of yourself? Not only that, could you possibly be expecting or hoping for something for others that they might not be able to fulfill?

Know When to Ask for Help

If you can see where those limitations are, is it possible to involve other people for help? I know that sometimes asking for help in challenging situations can be a struggle, because it may mean that we’re realizing things we can’t do to help others. However, a possible source of your burnout could mean you’re carrying a burden that you can’t really resolve for yourself or for others.

Recognize Potential Toxicity

By toxic I mean that there is a dynamic where there might be something like codependency, manipulation, or even some form of abuse. Are we dealing with people who are unwilling to work on themselves in any way shape or form? Do these individuals put all the responsibility and burden on us when there are things they need to do? If so set boundaries with that person and yourself so that you will not be put in a place where this can continue to happen, which leads to my final point.

Know When to Set or Realign Your Personal Boundaries

We hear about boundaries on a regular basis and how important they are. Along with limits, boundaries also can give you an idea of what you’re going to allow yourself to do in your personal and professional life. The more clear an idea you have of what limits and allowances you give yourself, the more balanced you feel.

I hope that these suggestions are helpful and that you can find success in having more meaningful personal and professional relationships!

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