Waymaker Program Self-Study

How to Protect Against Compassion Fatigue

Jun 07, 2020
Scaling Within

In order to stay in the fight for any just cause long-term, you must guard against compassion fatigue. 

What is Compassion Fatigue? Compassion fatigue is “a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS)."¹

Compassion fatigue is commonly experienced among first responders, nurses, therapists, advocates for victims of domestic abuse, and other public service & helping professionals.

However, it can also impact any empathetic individual who is acutely conscious of societal needs but feels helpless to solve them

Warning Signs of Compassion Fatigue

  • Feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, or helpless when hearing of others’ suffering.

  • Feelings of anger, irritability, sadness and anxiety.

  • Feeling emotionally, psychologically or physically exhausted, burnt out or numb.

  • Feeling detached from your surroundings or physical/emotional experience.

  • Reduced empathy.

  • Constant thinking or dwelling around the suffering of others.

  • Constant self-blame and feelings of not doing enough.

  • Changes in belief systems (such as belief about self, others, world, future) or meaning in life.

  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions.

  • Nausea, dizziness, headaches.

  • Difficulty sleeping and nightmares.

  • Being tense, agitated and on edge.

  • Self-isolation and withdrawal.

  • Poor coping such as self-medicating and increase in substance use.

  • Relationship conflict.

  • Feeling less efficient or productive at work and reduced pleasure in activities you used to enjoy.² 

When Compassion Fatigue is Left Unchecked

You have finite emotional capacity. Whenever you neglect your own well-being while overextending yourself in the care and concern of others for a prolonged period of time, you will eventually experience an equal and opposite reaction of numbing and detachment.

If left unchecked, compassion fatigue will eventually cause you to turn away from the very thing you care deeply about because of emotional burnout. The issues of our day are far too important to allow this to happen. 

Ways to Guard Against Compassion Fatigue

  • Grow in self-awareness.

  • Recognize your own limitations. You have finite emotional capacity. Be intentional where you spend it.

  • Be kind & patient with yourself in the process.

  • Know that you cannot please everyone and someone will always think you should be doing more.

  • Remember that you carry a piece of the puzzle, but you alone are not the entire solution. Your contribution is important, but it is not the only piece.

  • Leverage ebb & flow cycles— alternate times of pulling back to recharge and re-center with times of surging ahead with renewed momentum. Both are needed to sustain longevity.


¹ Figley, Charles (Ed) (2002). Treating compassion fatigue. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

² List adapted from Kamkar, Katy (2019-5-21). 20 warning signs of compassion Fatigue. Canadian Occupational Safety.

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