I hadn’t heard of it either, until a few years ago.
Compassion fatigue is a term used since the 1950’s to describe the effects on a person when he or she spends too much time and energy giving of themselves to help others. Originally it was used to describe people in the medical field (nurses, doctors, etc.), but it has expanded its reach over time.
Compassion Fatigue is a real disorder, with real symptoms, but I think that there are many of us who suffer from our own form of compassion fatigue. We give so much of ourselves to others, that we end up leaving nothing for ourselves.
Looking back on my years as a teacher, especially when I taught special education to children with Autism, I definitely think that I had some compassion fatigue going on. I was doing everything that I could for those children--working long hours after everyone had gone home, spending my free time reading about Autism, attending conferences and workshops on the weekends to learn new strategies, etc.
After 3 years I was completely burnt-out. Instead of figuring out how to set my own boundaries and ask for support, I eventually changed to teaching more generalized special education, then to teaching ESL, and finally I left the field of education entirely.
For me it was teaching, for you it might be some other job, or not even a job at all. You could just be giving to your children, or your family, or someone else entirely.
No matter what the situation, though, it is important to be aware of when you are giving too much.
Too often we equate taking care of ourselves as being selfish. As a result we can be left feeling tired, stifled, overwhelmed, irritated, disappointed, angry, resentful, or any number of other negative feelings.
Taking care of yourself or focusing on yourself doesn't have to mean that you are selfish. It doesn't mean that you don't care about others. It's okay to put yourself first. What you want and need is just as important as what others want and need.
What do you do if you find yourself in this situation?
Here are my suggestions:
- Look at what you are saying “yes” to, and think about what you are in turn saying “no” to.
- Figure out where you can set boundaries and start saying no.
- Delegate or hire someone to do the work--even in your personal life.
- Ask for support and help from whomever can give it
- Communicate your feelings and needs to those who make decisions (especially if this is work-related)
- If this is the job, and there is no working around it, you may have to consider finding a new career path, one that doesn’t cause you to lose yourself.
- Schedule time for yourself and keep it sacred. Your appointments with yourself are just as important as your appointments with others.
- Let go of a guilt. We can’t all be Mother Teresa, and that is okay.
Sometimes the boldest thing you can do is say YES to yourself.