Managing Compassion Fatigue


Compassion can have a short shelf life. That fact alone can make it very lonely and confusing for anyone in need.

All of us have felt a pang of pain when folks seem to disappear on us during our crisis. People who were there for us one minute become distracted or exhausted by our plight and fade off the scene. However, at times we are guilty of the same response to the need of others.

I have a son with a diagnosis of Schizophrenia. It’s been that way for over two decades. Most of the time, after the early years when the disease first appeared, he has done quite well. Recently however, he went through a crisis and landed in the hospital with a life-threatening illness. During this extreme situation I found myself overwhelmed with compassion for his plight. However, occasionally I shut down emotionally and closed my heart to him. I felt the same flagging compassion that I have experienced from others.

It takes energy and focus to sustain compassion. Chronic challenges like Alzheimer’s, cancer, substance abuse, and even unemployment can be life draining. Supporters drop out quickly.

In the face of another person’s crisis, we,

  • Feel awkward and out of control when confronted with problems that have no immediate “fix” 
  • Don’t have the emotional and physical bandwidth to deal with the situation and check out (dissociate)
  • Prefer that others listen to us rather than we listen to them 
  • Want the problem to fix itself and go away because it makes us feel helpless
  • Impatiently give useless advice like “Use tough love” or “Find a different medicine that works”

All of the above are signs that our compassion is flagging. While we all want to be helpful to those in need, few of us are the “energizer bunny” that can keep on being helpful all the time.

How then do we survive compassion fatigue?  

  1. Be realistic about the level of support that one person can give at one time.

 This helps you not to get bent out of shape when people flee for the exits or when you do the same. As a result you learn to spread your support needs around. You take the levels of support you actually get no matter how big or small.

  1. Learn to take care of yourself.

You learn to distract or energize yourself with activities that boost your energy. But in so doing, you don’t shut yourself off to potential helpers. Here it is important to find people who are going through a similar situation. All some can do is say “hang in there, it’s tough for you”. Such normalizing of your experience may be just what you needed in that moment. Others, with more durable mental and spiritual resources can sit with you through the night as you agonize over your situation.

  1. Reflect on what you can and cannot control.

 It is important to distinguish between short and long-term solutions. For instance, you cannot fix the dearth of medical providers but you can find one person who can take care of one part of the problem. Bemoaning an inadequate medical system is not helpful. As the saying goes, “Don’t curse the darkness, light a candle”

  1. Go where the help is.

The best compassion comes without judgment and cheap advice. In this current crisis I can number on one hand those who sustained their support with a focused and caring presence. Each person was worth his/her weight in gold. In the absence of such people in our immediate circle what can we do? Some find professional support. Others join 12-Step support groups. In the end, we all gravitate to where the help is.

 Please Share

 How did you navigate compassion fatigue without feeling hurt or guilty?

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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