3 Ways to Guard Against Compassion Fatigue
Compassion Fatigue. Even if you’ve never heard the term before, you see it and know exactly what it is. It’s harder to recognize in real life. It doesn’t announce it’s coming, but rather reveals itself through a short-tempered response to a co-worker’s question, sluggishness when it’s time to get out of bed, that persistent sore throat.
Compassion fatigue means we have supported and rallied and stayed present for those who needed us—but we’ve forgotten to extend that same grace to ourselves. It can develop following one difficult experience or multiple ones across weeks or months. It shows up in a myriad of effects, including trouble sleeping, anxiety, anger, sadness, fatigue, a sense of isolation, helplessness, rigid thinking, apathy or numbness, guilt, appetite changes, hypervigilance, and a weakened immune system. It can impact our productivity, our relationships, our judgment, and our health.
The best defense against compassion fatigue is a strong offense. Here are a few things we can do to protect ourselves.
1. Maintain healthy boundaries.
Recognize the limits of what you can provide. Don’t take on the role of holding up another person all by yourself. This is their path, not yours. You can help them along the way, but you can’t walk it for them.
2. Make self-care a routine.
Whatever your self-care is, make it as much a part of your routine as brushing your teeth. It could be a morning walk with the dog, playing the piano for thirty minutes after dinner, saying a prayer before bed, or anything else that helps you feel stronger. The key is to make it a commitment.
3. Talk about the hard stuff.
Of course, despite our best efforts, sometimes compassion fatigue will creep in. Recognize your own warning signs. Sometimes it’s when the things you used to love begin to feel like a burden. Maybe it’s when you can’t fall asleep at night, or you lose your appetite, or you find yourself craving a beer. When this happens, it’s time to double down on steps one through three.
Finally, be careful of the temptation to think of these steps as things that other people need, but not you. You are entitled to the air you breathe, the space you take up in the world, and all that you need to feel whole and full.
Katharine Manning is the President of Blackbird, which helps organizations support their employees and clients through periods of crisis. She is the author of The Empathetic Workplace: 5 Steps to a Compassionate, Calm, and Confident Response to Trauma on the Job (HarperCollins 2021). You can find her at www.katharinemanning.com and on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook.