(This post was originally published on Medium as "How I Nearly Lost Myself to Compassion Fatigue.")
Someone I was close to once was involved in a fender bender on the highway. When he recounted the incident to me, I couldn’t for the life of me dredge up any emotion. Predictably, that didn’t go down well with him and he ended up accusing me of not caring.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. Of course, I cared. But my compassion reserves were running on fumes and I simply had nothing more to give.
At that time, I didn’t know I was suffering the effects of compassion fatigue. So I piled guilt on top of everything else I was going through — guilt that my seemingly indifferent attitude made me out into a callous person. I wondered if this apathy was a result of something broken inside of me.
Wikipedia describes compassion fatigue as “a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress (STS).”
Even though we hear about compassion fatigue more in the caregiving and healing professions, it can also occur in relationships.
“It’s better to be healthy alone than sick with someone else.” — Phil McGraw
When you are constantly pandering to someone whose needs and demands take priority over everyone else’s, there is bound to be an emotional toll over time. The harsh realization that whatever you do for them will never be enough can be heartbreaking indeed.
My doctor had diagnosed me with flat affect. Flat affect means a lack of emotional expression. According to WebMD, “People who have it don’t show the usual signs of emotion like smiling, frowning, or raising their voice.” They seem uncaring and unresponsive.
Although my doctor tried to inquire as to what might be causing it, I was too ashamed to communicate the feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness that plagued me. That, paired with the constant sensation of being weighed down, completely robbed me of my joie de vivre. I withdrew more and more from my social circle rather than have to talk about what I was experiencing.
“….if you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.” — Dalai Lama
I refused to confront the reality of what was happening to me because I was in denial. What I recall most about that tough time was a horrible sensation of being slowly but steadily smothered, similar perhaps to the panic a plant falling prey to the invasive kudzu vine might feel.
This feeling kept growing stronger until I was overcome by the fear that unless I escaped it soon, it would be far too late.
I had my epiphany while I was gently pruning the desiccated leaves off my dying houseplant. Watching those discolored leaves fall sluggishly to the ground made me ponder my bleak existence.
What was sucking the life out of me so I awoke each morning with a heart so heavy and filled with dread for the morning ahead? Could I hope for a new lease on life if I somehow summoned the strength to pull myself out of this place of abject misery?
An article by the Gottman Institute talks about how to manage your “Emotional Bank Account.” Just like a regular bank account, if you keep making withdrawals without replenishing, your funds get depleted, and eventually, you are in danger of going into a negative balance. Once I recognized that this was what was happening to me, I stepped away.
And am I glad I did.
Healing from compassion fatigue was not instantaneous. My emotional bank account was so much in the red that I needed a lot of work and self-care to build back my emotional health. But by removing myself from the floundering situation, I took the first in giving myself a much-needed break to psychologically reset, so to speak.
Here are a few things that helped me in my journey to recovery:
- Talking about it: I found this to be immensely helpful even though it required me to step out of my comfort zone and be brave enough to ask for help. As Dr. Barton Goldsmith’s article in Psychology Today puts it “Learning that it’s okay to talk about our problems can feel a bit like a trip to the dentist. You know that the discomfort will stop once you get the tooth fixed, but you don’t want to go through the process because it hurts too. And sometimes, with emotional issues, you may be embarrassed to share what’s really going on for you. That’s why it’s so important to talk with someone who is comforting and nonjudgmental.”
- Incorporating relaxation techniques such as meditation and writing into my daily routine: I’ve discovered the latter to be very self-soothing as it not only gives voice to some of the thoughts I find difficult to verbally express but also provides an avenue for self-reflection.
- “NO. Is a complete sentence” — Anne Lamott: Perhaps the hardest thing I had to learn was to set strong emotional boundaries. I gave myself permission not to feel guilty about not being able to fulfill others' needs 24/7. I gave myself permission to acknowledge how I feel and that I have every right to express them in a healthy way.
“Be there for others, but never leave yourself behind.”—Dodinsky
Today, I am more mindful about making regular deposits in my emotional bank account. I do this by practicing self-care.
The lesson I’ve learned from my experience is that you need to recognize when something is wrong and the fact that it is not okay for your emotional wellbeing. As Tom Ziglar says, “Change starts with you but it doesn’t start until you do.”
Taking the necessary steps to remedy the situation is perhaps the biggest gift of kindness you can give yourself.