Using my personal experience as a catalyst for this article, I will discuss what compassion fatigue is, some signs and symptoms you may experience, and in Part 2 I will discuss what to do about it.
Do you seem to always feel tired?
Do you feel emotionally drained?
I know I did for the first 7 years of being with my wife Allie. I was completely drained all the time, especially emotionally. It affected my social life, my professional life, and my close relationships.
At the time, I had no idea what compassion fatigue even was or that it even existed. Fortunately, I was able to overcome it through a personal transformation I went through and will continue to go through for the rest of my life, which I will explain shortly.
It wasn’t until after I had overcome the many obstacles in my life through this transformation that I learned what compassion fatigue was and that it was something I dealt with for years. I had no idea.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, here are two separate definitions:
“the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time”
“apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance”
In my opinion, compassion fatigue is mental and emotional exhaustion, not physical. Physical exhaustion has another classification called “caregiver burnout”. These are two separate conditions.
Caregiver burnout is more to do with the physical duties of being a caregiver which may also include sleep deprivation. Whereas compassion fatigue is attributed to the massive amount of empathy caregivers have toward the one they’re caring for.
Signs And Symptoms Of Compassion Fatigue
- Emotional exhaustion
- Difficulty expressing emotions (especially love)
- Chronic fatigue
- Loss of passion for life
- Inability to hold space for your partner
- Lack of motivation
My Initial Encounter With Compassion Fatigue
Without a doubt, I experienced severe emotional withdrawal and apathy. My situation, however, is a little more unique than the majority of caregivers.
Most caregivers to a significant other were previously in a relationship prior to becoming the caregiver, I was not. My wife, Allie, had Leukemia for 9 years prior to the beginning of our relationship. I chose to engage in this relationship knowing the risks.
I was flying high from May 2009 up until January 2010. Our relationship was amazing, and I can confidently say that I gave everything I had emotionally. I was loving, somewhat understanding, positive, and I was a rock and a pillar of strength for Allie.
When January 2010 hit, I fell off an emotional cliff. I took a week off work and lay in bed 75% of the time, just wanting to sleep. I was confused, extremely exhausted, and felt zero emotion for anything.
At this point, even though I loved Allie dearly and knew she was the one, I questioned whether I wanted to stay with her. It didn’t make sense, and I couldn’t understand why.
After this week of hell, I was never the same. I fought tooth and nail to regenerate the flood of emotions I had prior to that week but I just couldn’t do it.
How My Compassion Fatigue Developed
Now that I am fortunate enough to be in a good place mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually, I can look back on my experience and observe how my compassion fatigue developed.
I distinctly remember placing myself in Allie’s shoes through various daydreams. I would do this purposely, and I would do it often.
I wanted to feel how Allie felt so that she could share her pain with me, in hopes she wouldn’t feel so alone with it.
This was my way of trying to understand her pain, of trying to understand how she sees life and the world around her.
Did it work? It sure did.
It worked so well that it eventually knocked me off the cliff.
The worst part about developing compassion fatigue is that I was not there for Allie emotionally. When she received bad news or had a bad day, I was not the pillar of strength or emotional crutch she could lean on.
What’s even worse than that, she started to avoid communicating with me about how she feels out of fear that I couldn’t handle it.
Our Internal Compass
As much as I wanted to, love is not something I had to offer during this time. In fact, much of what I had to offer is a short fuse, resentment, and indifference.
All I knew was that I had to change before I destroyed myself and our relationship. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I didn’t know where to start, and I didn’t know where it was going to take me.
What I did know, is the direction I was going was leading me to a very dark place and I wanted to see the light.
The road I was traveling was never ending. Leading to a destination of insurmountable despair and hopelessness, consuming my sense of direction the further I went.
I didn’t see the importance of the awareness I had at the time. The awareness to recognize the direction I was going. The awareness to recognize that I always have an internal compass to point me in the right direction.
Without recognizing this, I was doomed. Now, with my newfound awareness, all I had to do was let my internal compass lead the way.
Learn from all of your experiences, opportunities are everywhere.