If you’re an empath, you are all too familiar with overwhelm and burnout. But did you know that you are also particularly susceptible to something called “empath compassion fatigue”?
It turns out that for empaths, who literally feel the emotions and energy of others, compassion is not a limitless resource. Empath compassion fatigue is the point when you reach your limit. Suddenly, you realize that your emotional stores are depleted and your compassion has been replaced by apathy, or even anger.
Compassion fatigue, which is also known as “secondary traumatization”, is caused by the emotional residue from working with people or animals who have suffered from trauma. This can occur after exposure to one trauma case, or it can be cumulative.
You see, all the pain and suffering you encounter can build up over time. Layer after layer settles on your gentle empath heart and soul. Eventually, it weighs you down, and quells your motivation.
Who suffers from empath compassion fatigue?
While all empaths are susceptible to compassion fatigue, there are some who are more at risk than others. Compassion fatigue is considered to be an occupational hazard for anyone working in a caregiving role.
Careers that commonly lead to empath compassion fatigue include:
- support worker
- animal shelter worker
As you can see, careers that place empaths in close contact with those who have suffered trauma inevitably lead to empath compassion fatigue.
But what about all the unofficial caregivers out there?
Oftentimes, empaths attract or are attracted to those in need. You are drawn in by the stories of shame and suffering. You literally feel the pain of trauma victims, and you want to make it all better. You are the one your friends and family turn to when they are in pain. They share their darkest thoughts and experiences with you: abuse, addictions, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, illness.
You begin cutting off pieces of yourself to offer as medicine. You give them a listening ear and an open heart. You even set aside precious real estate in your head, allowing their pain and suffering to take up permanent residence in your mind.
After a while, you have nothing left to give. This is when the signs of empath compassion fatigue emerge.
7 Signs of empath compassion fatigue
- Your sense of empathy and compassion is replaced by numbness.
- You are emotionally and mentally exhausted.
- You are hypersensitive to emotional material in shows, movies, and books.
- You struggle with intimacy, and your personal relationships suffer.
- You intentionally isolate yourself.
- Your mind is filled with intrusive images of trauma.
- You dread going to work, and no longer enjoy your career.
How to heal from empath compassion fatigue
Needless to say, compassion fatigue wears you down, and leaves you feeling beyond depleted. It’s as if all the horror stories you’ve heard act like an sos pad on your life-force. So, how do you heal from all the secondary trauma, and regain your motivation and happiness?
Here are 3 steps to prevent and overcome empath compassion fatigue:
Simply knowing that compassion fatigue is a real thing, and that you are not crazy, or weak, can kickstart the healing process. Understanding your empathic nature will also help. For example, when you are aware of how deeply you are effected by the moods and emotions of those around you, you can take steps to protect yourself.
This is exactly what Sarah, an empath and INFJ who is a member of our private INFJ Forumhas learned to do:
“I often leave groups feeling depressed with emotions that I have sensed in others. They have no connection to me, but I have this strange feeling that if I live in their emotions, I can help them. But it does not help them; the best thing I can do is to see it and be aware, so that I can act without letting my own feelings get in the way. Sometimes, before I enter a room of people I say to myself, “Not mine, not mine!” and brush my shoulders to remind myself of my purpose in that situation.”
(INFJ personality types are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue because they are highly empathic and tend to be drawn to caregiving or counsellor careers. Go here for more information on INFJs.)
The good news is that simply by reading this article, you have already increased your awareness about yourself and your needs. I also recommend taking this Compassion Satisfaction/Fatigue Self-Test for Helpers, which allows you to assess your “compassion status”. This includes your risk of burnout, and compassion fatigue.
Many empaths in helping professions struggle with self-care. You are so busy caring for others that you neglect your own needs. Often, you even feel guilty for thinking of putting yourself first. You wonder, how can I take a bath, or go for a walk in solitude when there are people suffering all around me?
The more important question you should be asking is, how can I not?
No one can pour from an empty cup. Regularly exercising self-compassion by taking care of your mind, body, and soul will help you to prevent compassion fatigue.
What does this look like on a practical level?
Self-care can be as simple as a one-syllable world. It can mean saying ‘no’ to unnecessary obligations, and ‘yes’ to activities that make your heart smile.
Lisa, an empath and INFJ, is all too familiar with the pain of compassion fatigue, and the self-care steps necessary for healing:
“Compassion fatigue is what ultimately led to my decision to retire from the psychotherapy profession following a 25-year career that involved a significant amount of counseling other survivors of severe trauma and abuse, as well as what prompted me to take the extreme step of completely stopping watching television and eliminating all electronic and print news and ‘infotainment’ media from my life approximately one year after that.”
If you still need more convincing about self-care, consider this: Even Mother Teresa knew the importance of taking time to restore oneself from compassionate work. In her plan to her superiors, she required her nuns to take a mandatory year off every 4-5 years so that they could heal from their caregiving work.
Surely, you can justify taking 20-30 minutes a day to replenish your own compassion stores.
Helpers need help, too. There is no need to carry the burden on your own. Allow a professional counsellor, psychologist, or healer to guide you through the process of healing. Be sure to choose someone who is familiar with treating compassion fatigue.
The most important thing is to never lose hope. Though it may take time, the clouds will part and your compassion will return. Jeff, another INFJ empath from our INFJ community, explains:
“For the last 2 years after a 23-year relationship with a narcissist, I was a mess. I was processing all kinds of thoughts and feelings. I didn’t even realize I had lost my compassion … Then about 2 months ago, I drove by a young homeless family standing in a grocery store parking lot. Something inside me told me to turn around and help them. Later, as I was driving home, I suddenly realized my compassion had returned, and I didn’t even know I had lost it! Tears of joy filled my eyes. It was like welcoming home a long lost friend.”
Battered and beaten down though she may be, compassion is a true friend who wants and needs to be in your life. Invite her back in through awareness, self-care, and guided healing. Allow your broken pieces to be restored, so that you can continue sharing your light and love with the world.