We feel better when someone shows compassion for our situation, perhaps by listening warmly and understanding our emotional and physical pain. So, isn’t it wonderful that there are people who commit their professional or personal lives to helping those who are in physical and psychological pain? However, this type of caring often contributes to symptoms in the helper that resemble the symptoms of the people they care for. This phenomenon is called ‘compassion fatigue’.

Speaking from experience, what we in helping professions or volunteer work don’t realise is that people aiding those who suffer need to take care of themselves as well. We are often so focussed on others that we forget to pay attention to ourselves or don’t know that we need to. Worse, it might seem selfish to us to try and meet our own needs, and even to enjoy life while others are suffering.

The self-care concept is often taken more seriously with other types of work, especially work that tends to tax the body—jobs that involve heavy lifting, repetitive movement, a high noise level or sun exposure. But, no matter what we believe, it’s crucial that we look after ourselves during the course of caring for others; otherwise we might end up with compassion fatigue and, in the end, lose the very ability we have to help others.

those who help people who suffer need to take care of themselves as well

What is compassion fatigue?

Compassion fatigue develops when we witness or frequently listen to the traumatic stories of someone who is experiencing pain and fear and inadvertently take on some of that person’s symptoms. Other terms also used to express this are: ‘compassion stress’, ‘vicarious traumatisation’, ‘burnout’, ‘secondary traumatisation’ and ‘secondary traumatic stress’.

Amelia Lake [not her real name] a psychotherapist, describes the syndrome in this way: “[It feels like] I am the empathy lady from the old Star Trek episode, and I get maybe a 45 per cent hit of what my patients might be feeling 100 per cent.”

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This was first published in the December 2014 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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