When You Just Can’t Care Anymore, You’ve Got Compassion Fatigue
As a child, I spent huge parts of my life in a hospital. My father struggled with multiple illnesses, and my mother cared for him over the years unconditionally. At times, I would find her exhausted, trying hard to be patient around my brother and me. I wondered if it was possible for us to be compassionate all the time, without getting tired. When I grew up, I found that sometimes, it’s not possible; and that state is called compassion fatigue (CF).
What is compassion fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is a state of mind where people feel helpless and emotionally and physically drained to a point that they find it difficult to care or empathize with another person’s life circumstances or behaviour. The term was initially used regarding doctors, mental health professionals, social workers and disaster rescue teams, as well as family caregivers like my mother. However, its use has extended to parents at various stages of parenthood.
In my practice, I see young mothers struggling to keep pace with their energetic toddlers (especially when there is no family support or domestic help), and even seasoned parents turning numb in the face of teenage angst and rebellion. This kind of CF may be heightened in cases where parents struggle to understand their child’s temperament or adapt to special needs.
According to Brenda McCreight, therapist and author, “Parental compassion fatigue is physical, emotional and spiritual fatigue that takes over a parent and causes decline in his or her ability to experience joy at home or to feel and care for her child and herself.”
Compassion fatigue symptoms
Compassion fatigue symptoms may include cynicism, helplessness, emotional overeating, changes in sleep, substance abuse and isolating oneself from others. The symptoms for burnout and compassion fatigue look quite similar. Indeed, sometimes the physical and the mental exhaustion that accompanies burnout can lead to CF, and the two exhausted states of mind exist in tandem.
Read more about burnout on The Swaddle!
For parents, dealing with compassion fatigue is often exacerbated by feelings of guilt. When a parent feels he or she is operating on autopilot and struggling to be sensitive to his or her children’s behaviour and feelings, it can bring about a personal sense of shame, which can manifest as a breakdown, with uncontrollable crying or displaced emotions.
Dealing with compassion fatigue is a particular risk when parents (often mothers) choose to define their identity only as parents. Other factors, such as difficulty in delegating work or micromanaging children’s lives, can fatigue parents, too. Perfectionism, lack of social support, a troubled marriage and too many responsibilities without recognition can leave parents feeling unloved themselves – and consequently, with less compassion for others. Learning that parenthood is only one of their roles allows people to find a balance and overcome CF.
Treating compassion fatigue
Dr Charles Figley, director of the Tulane University Traumatology Institute, said in an interview, “The main thing with regard to self-care is that those who are selfless and compassionate have an Achilles’ heel — they don’t pay enough attention to themselves. So we have to save them from themselves.”
While he describes this in context of Hurricane Katrina and the stress experienced by rescue personnel, this explanation works beautifully even for mothers and fathers. Treating compassion fatigue must include building personal rituals of self-care and seek social support in order to combat compassion fatigue.
Read more about self-care on The Swaddle
It is fine to experience compassion fatigue — it is our body’s way of reminding us to find a balance within. Sometimes, this balance can be found by sharing one’s feelings with others who understand and have experienced similar emotions. Confiding in friends, family members, and even online communities can act as informal group therapy and help us experience the community and acceptance that will reignite our compassion for ourselves and others.
But if you still feel challenged with compassion fatigue as a parent, consider meeting a child psychologist who can help you understand your children better.