The Exhausted Healer: Understanding The Effects of Compassion Fatigue

compassion fatigue, burnout, secondary traumatic stress, the exhausted healer, Willow Counseling, Nashville, therapy

Compassion fatigue is an epidemic plaguing many caregivers, but it’s also a secret and taboo issue that nobody wants to talk about. As caregivers, we aim to help people to the best of our abilities. We want to do good in this world even if the world doesn’t seem to respond in the ways we’d like.

And, so, we are quick to give, love, and extend ourselves. Our work provides us with extraordinary meaning, and we feel honored to be in roles that serve others. That said, too much of a good thing can always be a problem, and that’s no exception for the caregiving role.

Why Compassion Fatigue Happens

Compassion isn’t as bottomless as we may think. Like any state of mind, our empathy towards others can fluctuate. When we’re in a role that requires consistent and heightened compassion, we become susceptible to the emotional wounds of caring too much.

Does that seem strange? The concept of caring too much? When we put it into context, it’s more about how we typically place the needs and traumas of others in front of our own. Likewise, the residual effects of experiencing adversity in other people can result in our own anxiety, depression, and mental disruption.

When we spend much of our days focusing on the anguish plaguing those around us, we risk depleting our own needs and feelings. This tricky crossroads can lead us to a dangerous place of burnout and mental exhaustion.

As caregivers, we want our efforts to matter. And inherently, we may hold unrealistic expectations for future outcomes. We hope things improve. We want people to change. We anticipate that hard work can lead to desirable rewards. Despite our best efforts, sometimes things don’t improve and people don’t change. Despite our intentions, anguish and trauma and relapses still occur.

Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue

People in the stereotypical ‘helping profession’ roles are most susceptible to compassion fatigue. These professionals include outreach workers, paraprofessionals, volunteers, clergy, and clinicians (nurses, counselors, case managers, therapists, doctors, emergency care workers).

How do you know if you’re struggling with this tricky problem? Consider the following common symptoms:

  • Loss of meaning and purpose
  • Somatic problems (increased headaches, stomach pains, body aches)
  • Racing thoughts
  • Hating or dreading work
  • Feeling ‘numb’ or detached from others
  • Frequent complaining
  • Increased irritability
  • Problems with coworkers, supervisors, and administration
  • Constant desire to escape
  • Sadness/depression
  • Violent fantasies
  • Anxiety and fear
  • Substance use or compulsive behaviors (shopping, gambling, overeating)

If you are experiencing one or more of these symptoms, you may be experiencing compassion fatigue.

While all caregivers are vulnerable to compassion fatigue, some risk factors make people more prone to developing such symptoms. These include:

  • Working with acute crises or emergencies regularly
  • Working with dangerous or violent populations
  • Specializing in grief, bereavement, or death
  • Having a heavy caseload or workload
  • Over-identification with survivors
  • Incidents that trigger personal experiences
  • Problems with codependency
  • Perfectionism and control issues
  • History of similar traumatic experiences
  • Having overly idealistic expectations for yourself or others

Surviving Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue is treatable. However, the healing process takes time, effort, and the willingness to shift your mindset and attitude.

Redefining Control

Nobody can determine the outcome of someone else’s life. The best caregiver in the world cannot change a client especially if the client does not want to change.

Moreover, caregivers are not perfect. Regardless of training and experience, we will always make mistakes. Such errors do not indicate failure. Instead, they may indicate the need for more training or referral options.

It is important to remember that we cannot control our workplaces. Note that as compassion fatigue increases, the sense of entitlement also increases. Because we feel like we have given so much to our employers or clients, we may be guilty of believing that we deserve more benefits (such as taking more vacation time, turning in work late).

Remember that you have chosen this work. To heal from the fatigue, you must be willing to accept accountability for your choices and understand what you can and cannot control. If you cannot or have not taken that responsibility, that’s something to work through first.

Redefining Validation

Many caregivers enter their chosen field because they naturally have a knack for pleasing and taking care of others. You may feel a tremendous sense of self-worth in the work you do with your clients. Likewise, if a client doesn’t succeed, you may also take that setback personally.

You cannot depend on others for internal validation. That is not the job of your clients or the overarching mission of your work. The affirmation must come from within. If you cannot access that within yourself, you risk depending on your job (and all its daily ups and downs) to provide that ‘good feeling’ for you.

Engaging In Ongoing Self-Evaluation

We are ultimately responsible for our own well-being. That responsibility holds true regardless of clients, employers, or work-life balance. If you continue to neglect yourself for the sake of your work, you will probably continue to sink into the perils of mental exhaustion.

Where are the areas where you need to improve? Have you stopped attending to your own hobbies or passions because you’re too tired after work? Are you guilty of complaining incessantly? Do you compulsively drink, eat, or shop to ‘drown’ out your sorrows?

The best way to prevent compassion fatigue from happening is by routinely assessing yourself. If you’re already struggling, you must identify the areas that require the most immediate attention.

Getting The Help You Need

As therapists, we understand the complicated nuances of compassion fatigue. It’s a tiresome cycle, and if you don’t address it, you risk more problems developing in both your personal and professional endeavors.

As a team, we can work together to unravel your emotions and restore your confidence in the work you do. Contact Willow Counseling today to get started.


Willow Counseling, Nashville, TN

Willow Counseling, PLLC exists to provide quality trauma-informed mental health counseling to the Nashville community, recognizing the interconnectedness of our emotional, spiritual and physical selves. We work together to alleviate symptoms, learn better coping skills, relieve burdens, remove the pain of trauma, and so much more. However, our greatest desire is for you to know what it means to feel purpose and joy again and to recognize the strength and worth you have to offer the world.

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