Compassion Fatigue in Empaths


 Compassion Fatigue is typically defined as indifference to charitable appeals on behalf of those who are suffering, experienced as a result of the frequency or number of such appeals. I remember back in early 2000 when I worked in an intense drug and alcohol treatment center, compassion fatigue was heavily talked about. On some level it was almost as if we were supposed to guard against it ourselves, as well as watch our co-workers for signs of it. The main premise of compassion fatigue boils down to the concept, that when people get burned out they tend to neglect those they are assigned to care about. I bought into this for a long time, until recently. I began working with a first responder who is clearly an empath. The problem is that not only does this person have no training on how to handle their empathic issues, they also have not received any training or information on how to deal with the traumatic and intense nature of their job. My observations about this individual’s behavior have caused me to do a great deal of unofficial research.

I began to wonder if the nature of being an empath changes how we cope with or experience compassion fatigue. Upon further investigation, this concept made a lot of sense. Being an empath myself, I exude compassion. I treat every living being with so much compassion and grace, it’s as natural as breathing to me. There is one exception to this graceful treatment…… This other being always gets the short end of the stick. Whether it’s downright neglect, being ignored, or just not treating this being the way they deserve to be treated. I am that person who I always neglect. In traditional compassion fatigue it’s the client or person being helped that is typically neglected or shortchanged, however I think the opposite is true for empaths. As I’ve studied people who demonstrate empathic abilities I’ve noticed that they keep on giving and short change themselves.

I suspect that this is true all the way across the board for empaths. I would argue that when empaths begin to experience burn out, that they stop serving and honoring themselves rather than those people they are charged with helping. I can find clear examples in the lives of my clients, friends, as well as myself. Let me give you some examples: I prefer to work four days a week instead of five. However, when someone really can’t get in to see me any earlier, I make arrangements to come in and see them on the fifth day. This does not sound like a huge deal initially, however it becomes a very slippery slope. While it can start with just coming in to see one client on my “off” day it can easily turn into working 6 days a week, working through my lunches, and taking no time for myself. In the field of first responders it looks slightly different. For first responders it appears as though they can’t say no to picking up extra shifts, they have an inability to not put themselves in the direct line of trauma or danger. Even teachers who are empaths struggle with this issue. For empaths who are teachers it begins with just taking a few papers home to grade one night and soon spirals down into school work at home every night. There is no profession immune from this level of compassion fatigue. And I think it’s foolish to continue to approach it from the aspect of the possibility that we could somehow harm someone else. We are at a much higher risk of harming or neglecting ourselves.

This level of burn out and fatigue used to be a large problem in my life, however by following the steps below I have eliminated my burn out. Here’s what I recommend to overcome the compassion fatigue and make yourself a higher priority.

  1. Have Fun: There’s a reason why this suggestion is in most of my blogs. It’s crucial to have fun. You determine what is fun (or used to be fun) and do it! It can be anything from painting pottery, mowing the grass, scrubbing the bathtub. You are in control of this activity and definition.
  2. Self-Hypnosis/ Meditation: This is by far one of the most effective and quickest solutions. Even if it’s as simple as three minutes, don’t get caught up in the trap of needing to get down to a really deep level or do it for a long time.
  3. Boundaries: We will be talking more about boundaries more in future blogs, however it’s a very crucial aspect of being an adult. The reality for me is that we teach people how to treat us.
  4. Practice Mindfulness: Don’t get caught up in the complexity of this concept. At its core mindfulness is simply about being present in the moment. Focus on your breath and feel it entering and exiting your body. Notice (without judgment) what is happening around you.
  5. Take time for you: Many years ago a brilliant woman in my life taught me to take one evening out for myself each week. On those nights I was not allowed to focus on: work, bills, cleaning, laundry, etc. The point was for me to fill my own cup so that I could be of higher service for others.
  6. Forgive yourself and others: Remember that the definition of forgiveness that I like is giving up the hope of a different or better yesterday. Reclaim your personal power and move beyond what ever didn’t go the way you wanted it to.
  7. Achieve Healing Sleep: It is said that our minds heal themselves when we enter Theta brain wave level of sleep and our bodies heal themselves in Delta. Make getting deep, healing, rejuvenating sleep a priority. Sleep is the biggest contributor to so many concerns today.
  8. Get Outside: Even if it’s just five or ten minutes, spend some time outside. The most beneficial thing you could do is to take off your shoes and socks and just breathe, while standing in on the earth. If that is not possible just feel the sunlight on your face

Jenn Bovee, LCSW is a spiritual life coach and psychotherapist. Jenn offers face to face therapy as well as life coaching for distance sessions.  Learn more about Jenn here: