On the show today we talking all about compassion fatigue and how this experience has likely impacted your personal life, health and ministry. Compassion fatigue is that thing that has left you feeling exhausted, numb, detached and peopled out, But chances are that you had no idea what it was called and why this happens.
Compassion fatigue refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others in our caregiver role: our empathy, our hope, and our compassion – not only for others but also for ourselves.
Compassion fatigue impacts your ability to extend empathy to others as well as your ability to have self-compassion or tend to your own well-being.
It’s been described as “the cost of caring” for others in emotional pain.
It is not a result of weakness, sin or failure, but it is an occupational hazard or known risk of providing empathy to others. And just like our work changes day-to-day, levels of fatigue ebb and flow from one day to the next so can your feelings of compassion fatigue.
There are many impacts to compassion fatigue but I’m going to share the 10 signs that I noticed in my life and in the show notes will offer a full list of the symptoms along with that quiz to measure your levels of compassion fatigue, burnout and secondary trauma.
The quiz I offer is called a Professional Quality of Life Assessment. It’s used in research with professional caregivers who support a highly traumatized population. Therefore, the threshold for fatigue is high. But it still is relevant to ministry caregivers who are the regular go-to for support.
It took me months to realize that I was experiencing compassion fatigue and it wasn’t until I stopped and found healing that I realized how significantly every area of my life was impacted.
Let me save you a few steps and hopefully months of hardship and tell you the 10 signs of compassion fatigue that I didn’t recognize until afterwards.
My family was bearing the brunt of my weariness but I didn’t stop and tend to my wellbeing until my work was impacted.
People who work on a construction site wear a helmet to protect them from known work hazards. And compassion fatigue is a type of workplace hazard for caregivers There are also protective measures for compassion fatigue. But they might not be what you would expect.
Here are the 10 signs of Compassion Fatigue that I overlooked which greatly impacted my life outside of work.
Forgetting to shut off the coffee maker every once and a while is fairly normal. But my forgetfulness or being distracted moved to a whole different level when I started to miss appointments and I even forgot to pick
For me, when my work with clients was impacted, was the up my kids from daycare. This is a common sign of fatigue that is oven overlooked.
2. Sensitivity to emotionally charge stimuli’
Welling up with emotion to a movie is normal, but sobbing at a marvel movie in the theatres is not. About 6 months before I went off of work I found myself unable to stop crying at the trauma experienced by the superheroes. I was embarrassed but didn’t pay much attention to it. Now I see that it was a red flag telling me I was experiencing compassion fatigue
3. Problems with intimacy
After coming home from a workday full of supporting clients, caring for my children and getting ready for the next day, the last thing I wanted was to be intimate with my spouse. I was exhausted and done often thinking please leave me alone. We didn’t have any underlying marital problems, but it was the job that was the problem, completely depleting me of energy.
Also, those who support sexual abuse survivors may also find that their work intrudes on their ability to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship with their spouse.
4. Intrusive imagery
I can remember on a vacation my husband and I went for a hike up to the top of a cliff. As we stood there looking out over the beauty, Aaron turned, noticed me looking distracted and asked “What are you thinking”. I casually said. I was wondering how many people have died by suicide by jumping off this cliff.
This was obviously very disturbing to him, but I thought nothing of it.
It is not unusual for images or memories that you are witness to hitch a ride with you and linger in your mind for a few days, but when they say for a couple of weeks you are likely experiencing a secondary traumatic stress experience.
I found myself becoming more cynical of new ideas. Whether it was a new staff at work wanting to improve staff morale or towards my children’s enthusiasm for life. I would go along as a passive participant but my willingness to be “fun” or silly was at an all-time low.
Cynicism is common in high-stress environments and I love what Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes “ cynicism is a sophisticated coping mechanism for dealing with anger and other intense feelings we do not know how to manage.”
6. Reduced ability to feel sympathy for family/friends
Like I mentioned before I would come home from a day at work helping those who struggle with serious mental illness, addictions and homelessness and have little to no empathy for the struggles of my friends and family.
I was numb and desensitized to what I perceived to be a minor issue. This can have significant implications for relationships. I was having a hard time summoning compassion for a friend who was in conflict with their family when I had a client who had just overcome some significant sexual abuse.
I distinctly remember wondering if I was depressed. I, a mental health clinician, wondered if my inability to find joy, laugh or have anticipation for an event that would have otherwise been exciting.
I brushed this off as a stress response, but looking back the lowered motivation, a tendency to self-isolate and the consistent lowered mood were all 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 and long-standing, but I was about to find freedom once I addressed the underlying compassion fatigue.
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, run-club or just out with the girls.
But the deeper I fell into compassion fatigue it was harder and harder to go out. I lost the motivation to be social and all I wanted was to home in my comfy clothes watch a movie or read a book.
It was very out of character for me to not want to be with people. This shift in behaviour and avoidance of social events was a clear indication of CF that I minimized.
9. Anger irritability
I often talk about how miserable I was towards my family. I don’t know if that’ how they would describe me. But looking back I’m ashamed at how short-tempered I was with my children and I had almost no tolerance for someone asking for my help. I was sensitive and my fuse was short when life didn’t run smoothly.
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.
10. Physical exhaustion
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 feel exhausted. Or I started to feel better while on vacation but after the first day back to work I was already back up to debilitating exhaustion levels.
This one is interesting because although I could recognize that I felt physically exhausted, I didn’t initially realize is how emotionally and mentally exhausted I was.
If you can identify with any of these symptoms I would encourage you to speak to your doctor and a trusted family or friend. That was my first step in finding healing from Compassion Fatigue.
Also, I invite you to check out the online course called Finding Hope in Helping by going to findinghopeinhelping.org. This is a comprehensive step-by guide in finding freedom from compassion fatigue.
When I think back on my time struggling with Compassion Fatigue it took me a while to recognize what was happening. And I feel that it was similar to the firefighter’s instructions to shut the windows before leaving the house.
At first, their instructions confused me. If there was a toxic gas building, who wouldn’t want to let in the fresh air?
I was told that while the open widows offer fresh air to that room they can’t get an accurate reading of how dangerous the levels were in the house.
When I would feel that my exhaustion, anger got to a crisis point I would take seek out temporary relief from fatigue by taking a day off or connecting with a friend, but it masked the intensity of compassion fatigue and weariness that I experienced and the toxicity continued to build in other areas of my life.
Like it says in Matthew 11:28 the first step is recognizing that you are wearing then the second is finding rest and the third is learning from Christ.
Finding rest can look different for each person, for me, it was reconnecting with friends that I put off for months, for you it might be time along.
But I encourage you now that you know this is a struggle to find rest. If you feel that your levels of compassion fatigue are high and might need more intensive support I want to suggest three options:
1) Seek out counselling. On great resource, I recommend for ministry leaders is with Full Strength Network as they have a network of Christian counsellors around North American that specialize in supporting ministry leaders.
2) Look into the Course Finding Hope In Helping. This is a course I wrote for those who don’t have access or feel that they don’t require 1-to-1 support. I like to give the analogy that counselling is having a personal fitness trainer and my course is like going to a fitness class. Someone walking you through the steps, but you are leading your own work.
3) Check out Episode 6 of The Care Ministry Podcast, 7 Keys to resilience and prioritize building these habits in your life. These 7 keys are are the protective measures that can prevent compassion fatigue from building in the first place.
So many times I‘ve heard caregivers say, I knew there was something wrong, but they just couldn’t put a finger on what they were experiencing. Everything on the outside looked like they had an idyllic life, but they continued to struggle with frustration, exhaustion and being people’s out
I hope that you are able to hear my story and see hope. Life serving others doesn’t have to mean that you will live a life exhausted.
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