Melissa Wilson, LMHC
Are We All Experiencing 'Compassion Fatigue'?
Updated: Jan 29, 2022
I am tired. Everyone I speak with often reports that they feel tired. We are tired of Covid. We are tired of keeping our kids away from their friends. We are tired from not seeing our own friends over the past two years. We are tired of managing the anxiety that accompanies living in a pandemic. We are tired from making choices regarding whether or not to see folks unmasked while indoors. We are tired from the trauma that has been experienced. We are tired from managing failed personal relationships. We are tired.
However, are we so tired that we have lost the art of showing others compassion? My four-year-old very recently came down with cold symptoms - runny nose and a horrendous cough. As a spoiler alert, he tested negative for Covid, but I was genuinely concerned about the cough that kept him up all night, so I called the pediatrician's office - as I would in any other time period, Covid-times included. I explained the situation to the woman who answered the phone and she said flatly: "Mrs. Wilson - he has a cold. It's just a cold." No compassion - no understanding that I was calling as a concerned mother. She continued to try to persuade me NOT to bring him in for a quick check by the doctor. Finally, she gave me a time slot saying: "Well, if you want, you can bring him in at 9:45am." Again, a flat voice, no compassion - just annoyance. Medical professionals and medical support staff are completely overloaded, but I really had a sick child who needed medical care and ended up requiring a prescription.
I am seeing it everywhere - people using a short tone of voice, cutting others off when speaking, not listening, reacting to situations - instead of stopping to think. That example is not the first incident where I have experienced a lack of compassion - I am experiencing this on a very regular basis. Is this a result of "compassion fatigue"? I first heard of the term while reading an article about nurses working during the pandemic - a feeling of having no more empathy left due to trauma exposure. So, what is happening here? Are many of us so overloaded, overwhelmed, and traumatized that we are not able to show compassion to others - even if we want to? What can you do if you see yourself experiencing compassion fatigue?
Self-care needs to be a priority for everyone. You need to be number one. Take care of yourself first, so then you can take care of others second. I had to take today off from my counseling job at a public preschool - with my son being sick and with both us up all night due to his coughing, we had not slept in days. If I went to work - and tried to push through my exhaustion - I would not have been my best self as a counselor or as a colleague. Years ago, I used to work through physical illness, physical exhaustion, mental exhaustion - but I never received a prize or an award for doing that and the lack of rest only added to my fatigue. By not resting, healing took longer. By not resting, showing up with focus, compassion, strong problem-solving skills, and high energy was really challenging - and not in a good way. Resting can look different for everyone - taking a day off from exercise, taking a day off from work when physically ill and emotionally drained, watching a movie, surrounding yourself with someone you love, being alone - but whatever you choose, find something that helps you to feel rejuvenated, even if your rejuvenation is only a small amount. It still counts.
Make sleep a priority. Again, when I was young and had far less life experience, I equated sleep (and rest) as not working hard enough. I am a hard worker - in my personal life and in my professional life. In my twenties and early thirties, I lived by the phrase: "Work hard...play harder." I did too. For me, sleep was not part of working or playing. Yet, without sleep, I felt drained and by the end of teaching a school year, I felt myself burning out - and looking back, I showed compassion fatigue. Now, I go to sleep early because I live with early risers. I make sleep a priority. Sleep impacts mental health and physical health. Make sleep a priority - it will certainly help with compassion fatigue.
Eat nourishing food that fuels your body and increase water intake - find food that gives you energy, while making you feel good. Make a list of nourishing foods you plan to eat tomorrow - knowing what you plan to eat helps you to make better food and meal choices, especially if you are tired. Research shows that sleep deprivation and tiredness cause an increase in overall hunger, which can lead to cravings of sugar, fat, or both. I am not part of a diet culture - I eat what makes me feel good and I fill up my water bottle throughout the day. I notice a huge difference in my mental and physical health based on what I eat and drink.
Go back to basics - and remind yourself to treat others the way you want to be treated. I like it when others validate my feelings*, listen to me, and use a kind tone of voice. Is that asking for a lot? I don't think so - but it may feel difficult to show compassion when we have been and continue to be stretched too thin. Last summer, Nike's corporate offices closed down for a week to help them "relax and recharge" - the expectation was to log off and shut down devices to focus on rest. The expectation was NOT to take a vacation and work - that does not even make sense to take a vacation and work, but this society does it all of the time. Anyway, Nike is on to something by making mental health a genuine priority and I really like it.
I realize that these items above will not completely resolve compassion fatigue - for many of us, seeking out the support from a mental health professional could be an important start to addressing compassion fatigue.
*Note: I don't really need others to validate how I feel - my feelings are my feelings and they are always valid - I don't need someone else to tell me it is okay to feel a certain way! It just feels nice.