Compassion Fatigue: The Signs, Symptoms, and Incurabilities

Compassion. From the Latin past participle of compati, it means “with, together,” (com) “to suffer” (pati). Compassion fatigue: to suffer with, together. No wonder we developed this phrase–in a hyper-headlined world, it’s difficult not to be fatigued by suffering with, together. Compassion fatigue. Bystander exhaustion. Empathy overextension. Headline sensitivity. Injustice paralysis. There’s many ways to describe the feeling.

Often, when I speak with someone about compassion fatigue, it’s described as a problem. This thing that’s keeping me in bed these days. How can it be fixed? How quickly until it goes away? Should I seek prescriptions or let the virus run its course? Even the language of it, “fatigue,” lends itself to disease-minded thinking.

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Feeling tired yet? Just wait til Day 42.

For several months, the office manager at church asked me about writing an article on what to do when you catch a bad case compassion fatigue. I resisted. Among the balms I carry for the soul, I have no cure for compassion fatigue. I have no urge to write a how-to, self-help manifesto on curing emotional exhaustion.

That’s because I don’t see it as a disease. Compassion fatigue isn’t something to be cured so you can go back to full-force, six-articles-a-day armchair activism. Or a medication to seek so you’ll be kinder in the office (God knows I need it). Or a caffeine jolt to get you back on the streets (read: there are more Keith Scott and Terrence Crutcher protests coming).

Compassion fatigue is something to respond to. It is, after all, a fatigue: a pain-reminder to not drive the reigns of your body and your emotions so hard (because the two are interlinked). But it’s not a disease. You can’t cure compassion fatigue because it’s made up of Feelings with a capital Feel. You can’t cure Feelings. But those Feelings can be a gift, a sign of your aliveness. To a degree, we ought to praise the compassion fatigue: “Amen, I feel. Amen, I am in pain. Amen, the world is so sore right now that I have rented out my bones to give the pain shelter.” It is a gift to feel deeply. It is a sign of good health.

The alternatives to compassion fatigue–which are diseases–are cynicism and cocooning. Cynicism numbs the pain by saying, “Bad things happen, I bear no responsibility to hurt when pain knocks at my neighbor’s door.” Cocooning resists troubling feeling at all, drawing a deep bubble around the individual and saying, “You must be THIS happy to ride this ride.” The cynic is resigned to all pain, refusing to enter or empathize with Feelings. The cocooner  resists all pain, asking those who hurt to take a number, or go to a different door, or “get out of here with all that downer stuff.” Cynicism and cocooning are diseases, because when they spread, society breaks down; the bond of empathy that holds human life together begins to erode.

Compassion fatigue is the healthiest response, a sort of reflex action. When you feel compassion fatigue, you can applaud that your Feelings are still in order. You’re still Feeling Feelings, which is one of the most human things you can do, and yes, what relief, you are still human.

Giving thanks for the Feelings doesn’t mean letting them fester and feed on your emotional reserves. You don’t have endless reserves. Compassion fatigue is a reminder to take some time to intentionally build up reserves.

I cannot say this enough–there’s no catchall cure. For some, compassion fatigue is eased by six hours of cat videos; for others, those same videos are a reminder of human failings, cat overpopulation, and an upchuck reflex (no judgment here). Responding to compassion fatigue is about knowing yourself; knowing your (healthy) coping strategies. Returning to your introvert habits, or your extrovert habits, may ease your compassion fatigue. Perhaps rest will help; perhaps a three-hour workout will. I rely on my helpful mantra “You do you–in a respectful, mutually affirming, collaborative way.” Whatever you choose, be gentle with yourself. Look to ease, not eliminate, fatigue.

For my own self, I return consistently to two healthy habits (and occasionally, some less healthy habits). Neither of those is self-care. Compassion fatigue often goes hand-in-hand with trendy conversations about self-care. I’m increasingly persuaded by the idea that self-care, in its colloquial use, has come to be “an importation of middle-class values of leisure that’s blind to the dynamics of working class (or even family) life [and] inherently rejects collective responsibility for each other’s well-being.” Self-care has become the reason to get a massage or go on a shopping spree or to collapse into the home-ness of consumption to gather the strength to fight it another day. And increasingly, we’re recognizing that self-care is inseparable from community care; that the symptoms of the self’s pain are the personal embodiment of the collective, and any healing of the self will be accompany beyond rest, Sabbath, and healing of the collective. So I avoid the semantics self-care.

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“Hallelujah, thine the glory/Revive us again.”

Instead, the closest thing to a cure I have for compassion fatigue is to be loved. This is especially critical for single adults, who don’t have a partner or parent watching out for their love-giving and -receiving patterns. Compassion fatigue is the result of loving so much it hurts; the counterbalance is to be received into a love that does not hurt. To call out to others and say, “I need some extra love right now.” Ask for love. Ask for affirmation from the people who know you best. Tell them you don’t have anything to spare right now. I’m blessed with a phenomenal group of friends who share this language and ability, and it eases and revives my heart, like pumping hyperpotion into your fainted Pokemon. It’s just as if my heart swells back to its normal size and beyond that, capacious and ready to share from my own reserves again.

The second thing I often incorporate is doing good. I subsist on altruism–that’s why I’m a pastor. Debates of altruism’s existence aside, the concept–that of giving spontaneously and unexpectedly–relieves my fatigue. To give to someone who is not expecting to receive, or to give far beyond proportion to their expectations, revives me. To create goodness where there was an expectation of none. It’s an existential statement that goodness can come from nothing, from whims, from my own dawdling and doodling. My most typical altruisms include cooking for friends or bringing fresh desserts to meetings and collaborating with U.S. Postal Service to deliver a surprise to a friend or family member who I can’t be with, physically.

These aren’t fool-proof strategies. There are no fool-proof strategies for being all up in your Feelings. But it’s helpful to begin by respecting your Feelings. By acknowledging them and, instead of trying to change them, changing your Reactions to your Feelings. React with grace and love and rest. Stop trying to cure yourself. But strengthen yourself for the wide and beautiful incurability of living.

 

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