Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue, also known as secondary traumatic stress (STS), is a condition characterized by a gradual lessening of compassion over time. It is common among individuals that work directly with trauma victims such as nurses, psychologists, and first responders. It was first diagnosed in nurses in the 1950s. Sufferers can exhibit several symptoms including hopelessness, a decrease in experiences of pleasure, constant stress and anxiety, sleeplessness or nightmares, and a pervasive negative attitude. This can have detrimental effects on individuals, both professionally and personally, including a decrease in productivity, the inability to focus, and the development of new feelings of incompetency and self-doubt.[1][dead link]

Journalism analysts argue that the media has caused widespread compassion fatigue in society by saturating newspapers and news shows with often decontextualized images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused the public to become cynical, or become resistant to helping people who are suffering.[2]

When I worked as a crisis counselor, I had this amazing ability to be really present with families and clients, while somehow maintaining a strong boundary emotinally. I was compassionate in the moment, and when the students were no longer on my caseload (betwen 3-6 weeks) I was done with them, emotionally. I saw my position as a part of the greater whole, a watering hole for the thirsty, but didn’t consider myself necessary to their overall lifetime of happiness. I was an in-the-moment bandaid and often saw immediate results, though I couldn’t take away years of chronic stress or drug use or neglect. I provided concrete skills in the immediate, much like a life preserver. I didn’t stick around to see if they became Olympic swimmers.

My job, now, though, is much harder than I expected. I see students for 1 quarter as a teacher and then they get funneled to me for advising in the rest of their time in our program. A student spent an hour crying in my office last week and I noticed that I cared quite deeply about their life story and realized that I was still holding a presence in their life since last year. And that’s when I realized that I’m pretty exhausted by my work. Because short term caring is easy for me. Long term caring is hard. And it gets harder every day, though I think my awareness of my caring is the first step. Because as a crisis counselor I didn’t think I was saving people, I was merely giving them a drink on a hot summer day. But with these students, sometimes I feel like I’m plunging into the murky waters to try and rescue them, repeatedly, and it’s both rewarding and exhausting. It’s hard staring into the face of a hungry teenager and tell them abou the wonders of study skills when I know that they aren’t getting fed, and most likely are sleeping on their friend’s couch and bumming cigarettes to take away the gnawing pains in their stomachs. I want to DO, because just being with the pain of their life is hard.

I don’t have compassion fatigue, but I see how I very well could develop it. I’m tired, certainly, but aren’t we all? Just this afternoon I see that yet another school gunman killed a teacher, and if I let it, my mind will go a thousand directions with that type of news. I am an educator working with students with records and access to guns and histories of mental illness. And I am a mom, with a son, who could be bullied or be a bully, who could have mental illness (like his mom) or a host of issues, or could be in class with a kid who brings a gun. If I start thinking I start panicking and in turn I just shut everything off. Because feeling the fear of losing my baby, because feeling the fear of leaving my baby motherless in this cruel world, is too much for my poor heart to begin to comprehend.

I’m trying to focus on self-care…therapy and yoga and talking with friends. But sometimes I feel like I need self-care from my self-care, does that make sense? Like the burden of weekly therapy and yoga and phone dates come stacking up and it’s one more thing I have to be present and aware and compassionate in, and I just don’t know if I have the resources. Because it’s exhausting being for others, my students and my child, what I can’t often be for myself (though I’m trying). Giving to others what I don’t feel like I have received, or am receiving, is taking a toll on my mind and my heart.

Have you experienced burnout or compassion fatigue? What did you do to get through that?


  1. I can relate to what you feel. I’m in the healthcare profession and am currently completing a master’s degree in social work. I worked with patients with SMI’s for about a year and a half at the state hospital. I was definitely experiencing CF by the end of that brief period. I would come home literally too tired to cook, clean, or give much of anything to my family. I would literally fall asleep on the couch around 7 pm from sheer exhaustion. It was a tough year. At that time, I didn’t take self-care very seriously and didn’t invest much time into making sure that I was caring for myself. Looking back, I was super enthusiastic about helping the patients at the expense of my own health, physically and emotionally, and that of my family’s. Now, I realize how important it is for me to recharge. I’m an introvert (not shy, just recharge in a different way than extroverts), so the only way I re-energize adequately is through solitude. Reading a good book helps me, as well as just vegging in front of the TV, or going to see a movie with or without a friend. I think it’s important that you find out what works best for you. It’s a very difficult balance. There are some days, even though I’m not working as much, where I want to just scream and pull out my hair because I feel overwhelmed. I don’t have a lot of friends with whom I can vent to, or feel that I want to place that burden on, so I’ve learned to just cope with it my own way. I hope that you can find some good ways in addition to what you’re already doing to get some relief and prevent CF. I also worry about all of these school shooting incidents. My daughter will be in college in a few years, which is terrifying and as a college professor, I empathize with how scary that must be hearing such news. It’s just so not right. Thank you for writing this post, and do take care of yourself!

    • Yeah, I hear ya. I think self-care is talked about a lot, but do we really see good models of it? I’ve never really seen that done. Most teachers I know get praised for staying late and doing extra compassion work. I got flak my first year for having such strong boundaries. Now that I’ve loosened them, though, I see how exhausted I truly will get if I don’t rein it back in and focus on re-charging! I’m an introvert, too, and the older my son gets the more I realize I do need time away from even him to recharge!

  2. Wow wow wow. The first paragraph describes me to a tee. It is scary. Esp the part about hopelessness self doubt and incompetence. This must be kismet because I was going to write a post about compassion fatigue. I would reblog this one except I fear in my experience it am woefully more CF’d than you are. Great post.

    • Yeah, I think I’m not quite to the point of compassion fatigue, but once I realized that my exhaustion was being caused (or impacted) by my work I started to really focus on self-care. Because last year I was still very firm in my crisis counselor boundaries, and hadn’t yet had a long term relationship with the students, I didn’t see the impact. I think I’ll recover and prevent burnout for a few more years but I do worry about having another kid…physical exhaustion only intensifies my mental and compassion exhaustion levels! Not much room in the tank 🙂


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