Leave Some for Yourself: When Caring Leads to Compassion Fatigue

Photo by Mikhail Nilov

Compassion may feel gratifying most of the time. But it can be draining when people aren’t cautious about who and how much they’re empathizing. When people care for others, they’re giving away some of themselves. Hence, they might become empty with compassion fatigue if they aren’t careful enough.

Humans are innately social and emotional creatures. This means they naturally, consciously, or subconsciously seek validation through their relation to the people around them and their relationships with each other. These innate characteristics also prompt them to function and be motivated because of their emotions, guiding them to recognize what’s essential and what’s not.

In line with being emotional and social, humans are hard-wired to be reactive to their surroundings. With the natural tendency to seek approval, connect, and belong with those they’re interested in or can harmonize with. They don’t only settle with observing others’ behaviors, as they aren’t fundamentally bystanders. Instead, they emotionally and morally react to these behaviors according to what they think is right or what they believe is likable.

Humans are hard-wired to care.

Regardless of how people claim to be indifferent to others’ perceptions and lives, deep down, they care. Some people might be particular with whom they empathize and are compassionate, only showing their “good side” to a chosen few. But this doesn’t immediately make them evil or insensitive. Good behavior should still be considered good, notwithstanding the behavior’s severity or intensity. People care, and they show it in numerous ways possible.

People are almost always willing to lend a hand when they believe someone is having a hard time or needs some assistance over something. Whether they know each other or are entirely strangers, people help when necessary and when they can. Perhaps, it’s simply in their morals to do so. Or they’re evading the possibility of regretting and being driven with guilt for not doing anything to alleviate another’s sufferings. But, whether it’s gratifying their need for approval, a good impression, or simply because they’re kind, people care and show it.

However, like everything else, this caring should be done in moderation.

In one of Jamie Pulos-Fry’s books, she mentions how a good and faithful servant’s relationship with others should equal their self-care. This means to care for another properly, one must first ensure they’ve taken care of themselves adequately. How would they serve another decently if they can’t even do so for themselves – someone they should know the demands and needs?

While it’s defined and envisioned as an all-good characteristic, compassion can be emotionally depleting. This is especially true when there’s an evident gap between the compassion one offers oneself and others. It can take a physical and emotional toll on people if this occurs.

Social connection and empathy might be some of the most potent self-care means, but this doesn’t mean people should empty themselves. From another’s perspective, this means they haven’t learned to empathize with themselves to prioritize another. This doesn’t sound bad in the spirit of connection and compassion toward others. Putting others before oneself might also be acceptable for short-term interactions, as this will make people extremely valued and happy. However, this won’t work in favor of anyone within the relationship in the long run.

Selflessness is beneficial for other people. But in attempting to do so, people will end up with the opposite of what they want.

Think of the provider as a glass of water who help others by pouring water into their glasses. If these compassionate glasses decide to be selfless and not care about themselves, they will constantly drain and give water to others without seeking to replenish or refill themselves. In the short term, this will fill other glasses just fine. But in the long run, they’ll constantly give the others water until they’ve run out and have nothing to offer. They’re left with an empty glass and the inability to help.

As people, the above imagery makes them exhausted, stressed, and burnt out. With an empty glass and the sudden realization that they’re useless to themselves and others, they will feel worthless. They’re left alone, questioning what they should do next, how they can gain strength, and the desire to help back.

For some, this can be easy. All they might need is a great rest, and they’ll bounce back more inspired than ever. Good for them. But others may need more than a good night’s sleep, making the process challenging. This is why people need to practice self-care or be sensitive and cautious about being too compassionate to the point of emptying themselves. After all, not only will it be not helpful to others, but it will also cause the individual harm, driving them to a headspace they might not come out of.

People might be hard-wired to care, but this shouldn’t only be toward others. They must also learn to put themselves first before anyone else.


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