Compassion fatigue can be hard to recognize. It often takes a significant incident to discover it. My hope is that in sharing my experience, it will save you future hardship.
It took me months to realize that I was experiencing compassion fatigue. My family was bearing the brunt of my weariness, but I didn’t realize I was experiencing compassion fatigue until my work was impacted. At work I began avoiding clients and even dreaded seeing their name on my schedule. I looked the part of a caring compassionate counselor, but on the inside I felt like anything but. My empathy for those who were struggling was diminished.
My wake-up call happened when, one day, I found myself silencing my client. I was redirecting the meeting to focus on less distressing issues as a protective mechanism for myself, rather than focus on the needs of the client. This was a big sign that I was not well. I was shocked, as I had a strong values centered around client care and support. It was then that I finally sought support. After taking time to heal and reflect, I came up with these 10 signs of compassion fatigue that are often overlooked.
10 signs of Compassion Fatigue
Forgetfulness is a common sign of compassion fatigue that is often overlooked. All of us are forgetful at some point in our lives. I’m sure many of you have forgotten to shut off the coffee maker when you’re busy an on the go. But my forgetfulness was on a whole other level. I started to miss appointments and even forgot to pick up my kids from daycare.
2. Sensitivity to emotionally charged stimuli
Extreme reactions to situations that would not usually affect you can be a red flag. But it is often ignored because it can be mortifying and uncomfortable.
It’s not unusual to well up with emotion at a movie, but sobbing at a Marvel movie in the theater is. That’s exactly what happened to me about 6 months before I took time off of work. I found myself unable to stop crying at the trauma experienced by the superheroes. However I didn’t pay much attention to it because I was embarrassed. Now I see that it was a sign of compassion fatigue.
3. Problems with intimacy
Jobs that demand a large output of support for others (such as nurses, social workers, pastors, etc.) can often lead to intimacy issues at home.
After a day full of supporting clients and caring for my kids, I was exhausted and completely depleted of energy. The last thing I wanted to do when I got home from work was be intimate with my spouse. I would find myself thinking, “please leave me alone.” We didn’t have any underlying marital issues, it was the job that was the problem.
Something else to note – those who support sexual abuse survivors may also find that their work inhibits their ability to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship with their spouse.
4. Intrusive imagery
It is not unusual for traumatic images or memories from work to linger in your mind for a few days. But when they continue to do so for more than a couple of weeks, you are likely experiencing a secondary traumatic stress experience.
My husband and I were hiking up to the top of a cliff while on vacation. As we stood there taking in the view, Aaron noticed I was distracted. He asked what I was thinking about. I casually said, “I wonder how many people have died by suicide from jumping off this cliff.” Aaron clearly found this disturbing, but I thought nothing of it.
Cynicism is common in high-stress environments. I love what Laura Van Dernoot Lipsky says on the subject. “Cynicism is a sophisticated coping mechanism for dealing with anger and other intense feelings we do not know how to manage.”
I became quite cynical. I was less than impressed with new staff members at work wanting to improve staff morale. And my children’s enthusiasm for life seemed misplaced. I would go along as a passive participant but my willingness to fully engage in new or fun activities was at an all-time low.
6. Reduced ability to feel sympathy for family/friends
When you spend all day caring for others, it can be hard to have anything left to give at home. Long-term, this can have serious implications for relationships.
I would come home from helping those who struggle with serious mental health issues, and have little to no empathy for the struggles of my friends and family. I was numb to what I perceived to be minor issues. When I started to have less empathy for clients at work, I really stopped to take notice. I was having a hard time summoning compassion for someone dealing with a seemingly trivial situation when I had another client who had just overcome some significant sexual abuse.
Situational depression can be common when experiencing compassion fatigue.
I distinctly remember wondering if I was depressed. Unable to find joy, laugh, or excitedly anticipate future events, I found myself self-isolating. And my mood and motivation were in the dumps. I brushed all of this off as a stress response, but looking back, these were markers that I was likely experiencing situational depression due to compassion fatigue.
I am happy to say that this type of depression is not clinical or long-standing. However it can only be dealt with once the underlying issue of compassion fatigue is addressed.
8. Avoiding social events
Thursday nights are my nights out. My kids know it, my husband knows it and I know it. Thursdays you can find me at book club, running club, or just out with the girls. But the deeper I fell into compassion fatigue, the harder it was to go out. I lost the motivation to be social. All I wanted was to be home in my comfy clothes and watch a movie or read a book. I am naturally an extrovert, so it was very out of character for me to not want to be with people. Although I minimized it, this shift in behaviour and avoidance of social events was a clear indication of compassion fatigue.
9. Anger and irritability
Irritability, or having a “short fuse” can be a sign that you’re experiencing compassion fatigue.
I often talk about how miserable I was towards my family. I’m ashamed of how short-tempered I was with my children and of my intolerance toward someone asking for my help. Despite being increasingly irritated with colleagues and clients, I was able to hold it all together at work. But at home, where it was safe, I would often get frustrated with the smallest things (like my kids forgetting to take their lunches out of their backpacks). I was sensitive and my fuse was short when life didn’t run smoothly.
Not just physical, but mental and emotional exhaustion can indicate compassion fatigue. However, chronic physical fatigue can be a sign that your exhaustion is more than just physical.
This was a key marker for me. No matter how much rest I got, or how much time away from work I had, I continued to be exhausted. Conversely, I would start to feel better during vacation, but after just one day back at work, my levels of exhaustion were debilitating. Although I could recognize that I was physically exhausted, I didn’t initially realize how emotionally and mentally exhausted I was.
So there you have it, my top 10 symptoms of compassion fatigue. Each of these symptoms deeply impacted by life, but I initially minimalized and overlooked them. If you identify with any of these symptoms, I would encourage you to speak to your doctor and/or a trusted family member or friend. That was my first step in finding healing from compassion fatigue.
I also invite you to check out my online course called Finding Hope in Helping by going to findinghopeinhelping.org. This is a comprehensive step-by-step guide to find freedom from compassion fatigue.