Navigating Compassion Fatigue

My nature is one that is high on compassion and empathy, which I am grateful for, but what happens when our greatest strength becomes our greatest weakness? Initially, when I started thinking about this post, I planned to title it, “Overcoming Compassion Fatigue.” As I pondered what to write, I began to realize that I was giving myself more credit than I deserve. I don’t think it is something I have overcome, but rather have learned to navigate. I am a pediatric physical therapist and work with families who are overextended every single day taking care of their children’s most basic needs. Their lives are usually very challenging. My empathy for their lives is often in full force; I care deeply for the challenges they face, and desperately want to improve their quality of life. 

As a mother, I have this same sort of empathy and often have a hard time differentiating which stress is mine and which is my children’s, husband’s, parents’, siblings’, coworkers’, and friends’. At times I feel overwhelmed. My empathetic nature buckles under the mounting pressure I feel when people I care for are experiencing such challenges. 

At this point, I have a choice to make:  do I continue to carry and lighten the burdens of my dear ones, or do I feel so hopeless that I do nothing because I feel like nothing I do will be truly helpful? When I think about my actions, I realize I have done both, many times. Some times, I jump in, bring the meals, donate the money, figure out what I can do that can help, and sleep a little better knowing I did everything I could. Other times, I am paralyzed. I don’t know what to do, so I do nothing. I am not uncaring to the situation, but I am so ill-equipped to make a difference. Those nights are sleepless, perhaps at the same time as my loved one in need.

I’ve found a few survival skills over the almost two decades of working in healthcare with families in difficult situations, and found that once I became a mother, I had to dig deeper than I ever had before. I began to feel drained even before I left the house in the mornings. When my children had illnesses, attitudes, toddler meltdowns, or my husband and I had a misunderstanding, financial challenges or disagreements, my ability to have compassion toward anyone started to become nonexistent.

Here are five things that I’ve learned that have helped me navigate this compassion fatigue.

Show up

Sometimes, this is all I can do. When I have gone through particularly difficult times, I remember the people who sent me gift cards for dinner, dropped a meal by, or stayed with my kids to give me a break. When friends of mine have had challenges, showing up and expressing your love for them has meant the world to them.

Do something nice

When I am feeling drained, have nothing to give to anyone, I make it a point to do something for someone. When someone is on my mind, I send them a quick Facebook message or text and it helps me feel a bit more connected. I may not be able to make a difference to everyone, but it fills my cup to focus on someone else, and lets them know that they matter to me.

Take it one minute at a time

Some circumstances are so overwhelming that I literally have to decide what to do and say one minute at a time. I have no master plan. I simply have to put out the first fire, and move on to the next one.

Do something for yourself

When I was going through a particularly difficult time juggling all my roles, I made a list of things that I could do for myself every single day that would help me feel a little more like myself. Included on my list were things like paint my nails, listen to a podcast, and go for a walk. I often think about the common idea that in order to save others, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.

Lean in

Be open to displays of compassion being bestowed upon you and lean in. Continue to give and receive support in your community.

Not only does compassion come naturally to me, it is a major core value of mine. I hope to teach my children to value it as well. Showing compassion all the time can be challenging when life gets overwhelming, but caring for my own needs, breaking it down to doable actions, doing something nice and being aware that showing up is enough have reminded me that compassion is truly a character strength that I want to share with others.

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