Compassion fatigue: how to avoid it and recover from it

Novelist Spider Robinson wrote, “Any shrink’s office from which laughter is not heard at least as often as tears should be shut down immediately.” I’m a huge believer in that.  While folks like me know that we live at the extremes, we overlook how this impacts us emotionally. We feel everything or nothing. We’re either fine-thanks-for-asking or we’re overwhelmed.

We have a knack for getting in our own way and for taking ourselves far too seriously. We readily get lost in circumstances – past and present. Laughter is a reality check. It’s the release that grounds and balances us.

Even better – it’s proof that we’re going to be okay.

I met with a group of folks recently that I deeply respect. When I looked around the room, I saw a collection of human doers (people who rarely, if ever can just…be). Our accomplishments and service are as substantial as our scars.

While the value of honorable service to others cannot be overstated, the cost of doing it without sufficient balance is compassion fatigue, which results in burn out.

I have fallen prey to burnout personally and professionally many times (I’m a slow learner). In retrospect, I see the key: People don’t burn out because of what they do. They burn out because of what they don’t do.

Compassion fatigue is a product of living an unmanageable life in which one inevitably becomes drained by giving far more than they receive. People in the healing and helping professions are the biggest offenders of this. If you watched us closely you’d see:

  • We have 40 hours in at work by mid-week.
  • We are skilled multi taskers who do amazingly things like driving while using voice to text to respond to emails and FB messages (hey – it’s hands free!)
  • We regard sleep as a horribly inefficient use of time
  • We rely on only the necessary food groups: caffeine, chocolate, whatever can be held while driving, and antacids.
  • Our friends and extended family no longer ask when they’ll see us. The words, “as soon as it slows down” are the lie they’re accustomed to hearing.

We’re the most indispensable people in our workplace, volunteer organizations, civic and religious groups, and we’re usually damned good at taking care of our immediate families. We’re “go to” people who get things done. Ask the world of us, just don’t say the thing we most hate hearing:

“I don’t know how you do it!”

See, that’s a pesky reminder that we’re doing too much and ignoring the cost. It screws up the lie that we’re fine and that helping others is all we need to feel good. Most of us are running from ourselves. Doing for others is the easiest way to avoid and it does feel good. So of course, we take it to extremes.

I have learned:

  • That it takes far more vulnerability to be served than to serve
  • That I have often lived like a person seeking redemption
  • That there is no scorecard and nothing to prove
  • That my basic needs are not optional (sleep, nutrition, exercise)
  • That hobbies and pursuits that are just for me are part of what it means to have a life
  • That it’s selfish not to allow reciprocity (I can’t just give)

I espouse the value of “Rule #62” (don’t take yourself so damned seriously). I have learned that I am extremely important and not at all important at the same time.  I have learned that I am simultaneously powerless and powerful. Most of all, I have learned that I must be accountable for my limits and self-care. I need people who are secure enough in themselves to challenge me. They say things like:

  • It’s time for a break/vacation/to cut down your schedule
  • You’re not just tired. You’re drained
  • You’d be concerned if it were me in your shoes.
  • Let someone else step up.

In the absence of accountability, it’s me relying on me to know that I’m ok. Even when I am, monitoring me is a full-time job. When we care for each other, nobody has to burn out, and we pick each other up before we fall.

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is the Executive Director of Higher Ground Services in Brewer, Maine. He is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in facilitating recovery (whether from addiction, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles, and improve their quality of life. Jim offers a limited amount of online therapy to those with very flexible schedules.