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. Continue reading

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