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3 Steps to Overcoming Compassion Fatigue

February 20, 2015


Much of the research on compassion fatigue and burnout has focused on counselors and first responders who work with trauma victims. But in recent years a lot of research has been focusing on volunteers in order to highlight the impact that care work may have on them.


What is Compassion Fatigue? 

Compassion fatigue is similar to that burned-out feeling we are all too familiar with, that makes us feel sadness and despair to the extent it can impair our own health and well-being. It isn’t unusual in the spectrum of volunteering to find many people who become vulnerable to stress, which can interfere with their personal and professional lives and mental well-being, resulting in compassion fatigue.

This fatigue and burnout is often a result of people caring too much. Really dedicated volunteers can sometimes use so much of their own inner energy to go above and beyond, to make everything right, that it ends up affecting their health. Being in a helping role involves attending to the needs of others and being exposed to negativity and suffering. In addition to these external pressures, Volunteers may often have attitudes that increase susceptibility to burnout.


How Does Compassion Fatigue Impact Volunteers?

So, Compassion Fatigue explains how volunteers can be affected by regularly hearing, and bearing witness, to those who experience ongoing pain, loss, suffering and hardship. It gives us a framework for understanding how Volunteers may be impacted by the work they do and it also creates an understanding of the types of strategies that can be used to minimize the chance of developing it.

We also know that empathy is a double edge sword – it’s a tool to help you care for others, but it’s also what can lead to Compassion Fatigue. So it makes sense that being a Volunteer puts you at risk for developing fatigue and burnout.


What Are The Early Warning Signs That You May be Struggling with Compassion Fatigue?

In the early stages of burnout one will have less energy and will need to make more of an effort to deal with everyday pressures. One may be more negative, quick to anger, have a reduced sense of accomplishment, feel tired more often, become more withdrawn and experience increased interpersonal conflicts. One may also feel numb, disillusioned, hardened and overwhelmed. In extreme cases a Volunteer may even become preoccupied with someone’s story, suffering intrusive thoughts and helplessness.


4 Questions To Ask Yourself If You Think You May Be At Risk of Developing Compassion Fatigue: 

  1. Is it easier for you to give than to receive?
  2. Do you have the tendency to take on other people's suffering?
  3. Do you go above and beyond what is expected of you?
  4. Is it challenging to set limits?

If You Answered Yes To Any of The Above Questions, Here Are Some Areas You May Need To Work On:

  • Set your limits more effectively.
  • Stop putting others' needs before your own needs.
  • Stay empathic but without taking on your person’s problems.
  • Learn to prevent and/or work through burnout by developing a self-care plan.
  • Recognize the unique stress involved in helping others.
  • Identify attitudes that limit your attention to self-care.
  • Overcome obstacles that limit attention to self-care.
  • Practicing self-care can help you to avoid burnout or compassion fatigue Here are some steps that you can take:
  • Care for others by caring for yourself. This means eat, sleep and take time to relax.
  • Exercise in a healthy way to help relieve stress.
  • Aside from prescribed medication don't use chemicals to enhance performance or induce rest.
  • Talk with friends and family about things that are weighing you down.
  • Journal, blog, tweet, write poetry – any form of writing can be very therapeutic.
  • Try deep breathing exercises, guided imagery sessions or meditation. These simple techniques can help you relax and become more self-aware.
  • Write about or share one good thing each day with somebody.
  • Look for lessons to be learned from even the worst situations.
  • Celebrate even small victories and personal accomplishments.
  • Make time to enjoy your favorite hobbies and interests.
  • Step away and take a break.


Practicing Self-Care Can Help You To:

  • Strengthen boundaries and self-esteem.
  • Combat fatigue.
  • Prevent and counteract burnout.
  • Enhance your interpersonal relationships.
  • Improve self-efficacy and self-regulation – this relates to one’s ability to believe in themselves and their sense of personal power
  • Get more of what you want from life.
  • Improve effectiveness: being able to stay focused and managing your time.

Why is Self-Care Important? 

Self-care actually increases a volunteer’s capacity to care for others. Self-care, however, is not just about making healthy lifestyle choices - it is about being present with one’s feelings, sensations and intuitive guidance in order to detect what is best in any given moment.

In addition to making healthy lifestyle choices, self-care is about being true to oneself, being attuned to what is in your best interests and taking a proactive stance toward your needs and goals. Self-care is not about selfishness or being self-absorbed.

It is worth remembering that acknowledging the importance of self-care alone won’t enable you to take better care of yourself. It is important to address the obstacles that limit attention to self-care and perpetuate stress such as excessive expectations, perfectionism and having an exaggerated sense of responsibility. These obstacles lead to destructive survival strategies like people pleasing and unhealthy giving styles.

Remember, when you neglect self-care it takes a toll on your effectiveness as a helper, your health and your relationships.


Written by 7cups Listener and Mentor, Soulsurfer