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The Emotional Toll of Burnout: Self-Care for Compassion Fatigue

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

Written by Allegra Johnson, Secondary Education Coordinator + Yoga in the Schools Instructor

"Compassion fatigue reminds us our cup can be refilled- our light has not burnt out." - Allegra Johnson

The word “burnout” is everywhere and is often associated with shame and weakness…which are perhaps the two things that most fuel this type of exhaustion from caring.

However, in recent years, I have discovered a new phrase: compassion fatigue.

I have noticed this is a way to reclaim and empower those who experience the weight of this feeling.

Originally, “compassion fatigue” was used by a healthcare worker to describe a level of burnout that hindered their ability to care for other people.

As someone who dedicates their life to caring for others, this feeling is uncomfortable at best, and, at worst, the start of an identity crisis.

And it’s why when I experienced compassion fatigue as a social worker, I was met with shame.

Expectations we often hear can riddle us with shame, even if they come from a place of good intention.

Phrases like:

  • "You signed up for this."

  • "Toughen up."

  • “You only know you are caring if it hurts and if you are suffering.”

  • “These people need you.”

What was worse than the feeling of shame was the feeling of indifference.

I began to feel callous and numb.

My self-preservation was praised and yet my boundaries seemed cold, not empowering.

What is a Compassion Fatigue?

So what is compassion fatigue? Why does it matter? What can we learn?

According to WebMD, "Compassion fatigue is a term that describes the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others — often through experiences of stress or trauma. Compassion fatigue is often mistaken for burnout, which is a cumulative sense of fatigue or dissatisfaction."

Compassion fatigue reminds us our cup can be refilled- our light has not burnt out.

It is a call to rest and be rejuvenated, whereas “Burnout” often stimulates feelings of self-preservation through scarcity, bargaining, and indifference.

However, the consequence of this is most felt by the people who encounter social workers, educators, and health care workers - and who need the most care and compassion.

They are denied consistency and true compassion- something they desperately need and we all desperately want to share with them.

The hard truth with compassion fatigue is remembering we play a large role in preventing it.

We must recognize it when it comes, and choose to heal.

But how do we begin that path? Where do we start?

Dr. Brené Brown is a social worker who has done extensive research on the human experience.

In 2020, she spoke to 60 minutes about her latest research where she found the most compassionate people had the most boundaries.

Compassion fatigue asks us to speak our truth, seek help, and set boundaries.

This can seem self-indulgent and lazy; however, when deep discernment goes into these requests and we expect the best out of our colleagues, we can heal and rejuvenate from compassion fatigue.

In this work, we will all feel exhaustion, anger, defeat, and sorrow.

The road beyond these feelings is unfortunately and wonderfully up to us.

There is no shame in finding ourselves fatigued from compassion. We have all been there.

What is up to us is the sacred pause and the courage to know what we truly need and then to set and hold the boundaries needed to get them.

Perhaps the hardest part of embracing the language of compassion fatigue rather than burnout, is how this calls us to help others who experience this fatigue as well.

  • Do you respect the boundaries set by your colleagues?

  • Do you trust they are doing their best?

  • When their boundaries conflict with yours, do you welcome this and believe there is a way forward?

Of course, all of these things are easier said than done and yet vital for feeling connected to colleagues, families, and communities.

The benefit is the creation of spaces where compassion flows freely and abundantly.

Whether you connect to the title of educator, health care worker, parent, or human, I invite each of you to take a few minutes to think about the compassion you give. Courageously, set a boundary you need to uphold the work of sharing compassion. You deserve it. There is enough compassion, patience, and truth to navigate any challenge.

There is enough. You are enough.

~ Allegra

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