August 17, 2020

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Alyssa Petersel

6 Coping Tools For Compassion Fatigue

If you feel as though you are giving, and giving, and giving, and yet the problem you are trying to alleviate continues to deepen or grow, keep reading.

If you feel as though you are giving, and giving, and giving, and yet the problem you are trying to alleviate continues to deepen or grow, keep reading.

You may feel as though you are dangerously close to running out of your personal resources to give, or you are already empty. You may believe that if you give one more inch, you just may implode or disappear.

Whether you are reading this as someone who is in a caretaker position professionally or someone who plays a caretaker role in your personal life, you are likely experiencing what we “in the biz” have come to call “compassion fatigue.”

Of course, supporting others is a gift. To a point. If we are put in a position to bottomlessly give, without our own reserve of energy and sustenance, this giving can lead to resentment and depletion, and ultimately, will double the number of people needing support rather than reducing it.

Among the roller coaster of emotions that is COVID-19 and societal unrest, you may be feeling:

  • More irritable than usual
  • Hungrier or less hungry than usual
  • A shorter fuse than usual from content to angry
  • Difficulty falling asleep or difficulty waking up
  • Increased tension in your physical body (potentially your eyes, jaw, chest, or stomach)
  • Increased gastrointestinal issues
  • More bouts of crying without necessarily knowing the root cause
  • Grasping for more at the bottom of your bucket and feeling as though you don’t have any more to give

Before diving in to a few tips, tools and perspectives to alleviate and better manage compassion fatigue, I want to emphasize that if you are feeling this way, you are not alone. Especially during this time when mental health needs are at an all-time high and societal unrest is heightening levels of urgency, leaving little room for restoration, many of us are running on empty.

In an effort to help you better manage compassion fatigue, whether you’re at the onset of noticing something is off, or if you’re digging out of a chronic pattern, I am sharing 6 practices that may, over time, both help you recover from your current state of compassion fatigue, as well as help you to proactively prevent compassion fatigue from taking control in the future.

1. Non-negotiable time for you

That first word is really important: non-negotiable. Often, us caregiving types will set an ideal agenda or plan for our “me time,” but that me-time can be overridden or easily canceled if someone else’s need arises that we deem to be more important than our own.

Repeat to yourself: In order for me to be the best human, professional, sibling, child, parent, friend, significant other, pet owner, and every other role that I play, I absolutely need to have enough in my tank to show up. I need this time for me to be able to be who I am for others.

Now, what exactly this time looks like is going to be highly dependent on who YOU are.

It may look like a 30 min warm shower in the morning or in the evening, during which you use your absolute favorite soap, scented to perfection, and play the playlist that helps you escape your to-do list momentarily.

It may look like a 20 min Netflix show, the silly and foolish and laugh-out-loud kind, that helps you to disconnect from the “real world” for just enough time to release that belly laugh you miss so much.

It may look like 5 minutes of deep breaths before you get out of bed in the morning or before you fall asleep at night, before your children or your partner realize you are awake.

What provides you relief and what your life circumstances are will play big roles in what this ritual is for you.

The most important thing is that you commit to a length of time and a type of practice that is exclusively for you. That’s right, be selfish! It may be 5 minutes a day, it may be 3 hours a day. I trust you to use your judgment around choosing something that is sustainable in your day-to-day (in other words, something you can realistically follow through with--and we’ll get more into setting realistic expectations in a moment), and something that will bring you joy without causing harm to others.

2. Weave joy into the mundane

Sometimes, you truly do not have time for any non-negotiable practices that are separate from your already overwhelming list of day-to-day activities and chores. I get it.

A little hack here is to weave joy into the mundane whenever possible. For example: do you brush your teeth at the start and end of your day? If possible, choose toothpaste that makes you smile. It may be the color of the packaging, the flavor of the toothpaste, the texture of your toothbrush. These are small, intricate details that we can choose to focus on to bring a little bit more light into our day.

Similarly, if you shower regularly, or wash the dishes regularly, try to choose a soap scent that brings you joy. For me, this is lavender, which reminds me to take a deep breath, zoom out, and refocus on what really matters. For you, it might be something citrusy, which can bring a rush of energy or alertness, or something sweet like vanilla or chocolate, which can bring a sense of decadence to your day.

One thing I did recently is I purchased highlighters to use in my work notebook. This brings an element of joy and fun into the work that I otherwise need to do. It also helps me organize and categorize my work agendas post-meetings, which has since become less time-consuming because I am organizing as I go, rather than needing to organize afterward. That time I’ve regained I can invest in my non-negotiable chosen self-care routines, which then funnels a little bit more joy and grounding into the pool.

What activities do you need to do every day, or every week? How can you edit those ever so slightly to bring a little bit more light in?

3. Set realistic expectations

Setting realistic expectations applies in two ways when we think about compassion fatigue. One is as we talked about above, you want to set realistic expectations around your own management of compassion fatigue.

For example, if you choose meditation as your non-negotiable self-care practice, which is proven to help with things like stress management and compassion generation, you may be inclined to set your goal for 1 hour of meditation per day out the gate. Based on your childcare schedule, work requirements, or previous inexperience with meditation, you may embark on this goal and soon realize that you may not realistically be able to sustain this duration and frequency of practice. You might find as a result that you stop practicing all together and conclude that meditation just isn’t for you.

Instead, you might want to set a goal of 5 or 10 minutes per day. Start with the version of the goal that sounds so easy, it would be silly not to do it. If you find yourself completing this goal over and over, and you want to increase the goal, increase the goal! Incrementally, you can build to a place of higher duration and frequency. Not only do you not need to go from zero to 100 overnight, but if you set yourself up for success, you will be increasingly incentivized psychologically to continue to follow through on your goal, whereas if you set yourself up for failure, you are more likely psychologically to abandon ship.

Be your own biggest advocate here; set yourself up for success and you’ll be amazed at what you can shift and achieve.

Setting realistic expectations also applies to the caretaking role you play. If you are a caretaker, professionally or personally, especially if you are faced with new challenges right now that you don’t have years of experience working through, you may be inclined to expect that you will solve the problem immediately. However, the problem you are hoping to solve may realistically take days, months, or years to change; or, the problem may not have a satisfactory solution within reach, and the work may be more rooted in acceptance than alleviation of pain.

I encourage you to reflect thoughtfully and intentionally about what the problem at hand really is, and what a realistic goal is for the amount of impact you can make in a given amount of time. Set yourself up for success in being able to provide that level of support. If you are psychologically gearing up for an impact that you cannot realistically make, you will begin to feel that you are not enough or that you are failing this person or situation, when really, it would have not been possible for you to reach that goal at the onset. This is not your fault, nor should you be punished for it.

4. When possible, ask for support

Piggy-backing off of our last priority, zoom out for a moment. What is the problem you’re hoping to solve, and what is the realistic outcome? Is this something that you can or need to manage on your own? Are there people in your life, personally or professionally, who can help you? What does more hands on deck do for the desired outcome?

I recognize that sometimes, other live human support is not possible. In this case, are there blogs, books, podcasts, advisors, or support networks that might add light to your circumstances via other lived or learned experiences?

We are societally conditioned to refrain from asking for support. We “should” be able to handle this on our own, right? Wrong. So many human obstacles are ones that originally were likely handled in community or with multiple perspectives and resources contributing. Despite the modern day pressure to be superheroes all on our own, humans are communal creatures.

Reflect on whether there are aspects of what you are managing that you can delegate or that you can ask for support with. My hope is that this brings in some additional expertise and buys you at least an extra 10 minutes per day that you can then invest in the non-negotiable practice you chose in tip 1. At absolute minimum, my hope is that this reminds you that you are not alone.

5. Connect with a community who understands

Building off of asking for support, sometimes, you really do face a circumstance that you need to handle on your own. This may be for work or professional reasons. Perhaps you are physically isolated, perhaps your financial resources limit your options, or you are in a rare and nuanced circumstance that others do not have additional expertise in. A multitude of factors may apply here.

I encourage you to allocate at least 30 minutes to exploring whether there are friends or community groups that you can confide in and receive support from. The others may not understand 100% of what you are going through, or what you are hoping to make progress toward, but they are likely to understand their own lived experience of compassion fatigue, and they are eager and available to remind you about how much they care for you. Perhaps they can lend you other support, like sending you a dinner delivery occasionally, or providing an evening of childcare.

This connection with others will emphasize that you are not alone and will provide some reprieve amidst the otherwise overwhelming depletion and giving.

6. Receive your own therapy

If possible, invest in your own therapy.

Working with a therapist can help you begin to notice some of the early warning signs of compassion fatigue before they become a deep well that you are reactively digging out of. It is significantly easier to set up proactive, intentional practices when you are feeling relatively well and grounded than when you are already past your limit.

This awareness building work will also begin to show you which people and environments in your life are the most draining and which are the most restorative, so that you can begin to make new choices, if you’d like to and if possible, to redesign and restructure your future to speak more to your strengths, be more holistically restorative for you, and increase the amount of time spent in areas or with people that lift you up, while reducing time spent in areas and with people that bring you down.

Finally, among its other benefits, working with a therapist can help you identify the various ways that even the very 6 tools mentioned here apply to your particular circumstances and needs. You can brainstorm together where and how you’d like to bring joy to the mundane, the support groups you’d like to connect with, what expectations may be realistic vs. slightly over-ambitious, and more.

When you are ready to find the right therapist for you, good news: we at MyWellbeing can help! This is our specialty. Complete this brief form to share more information about what you are looking for in a therapist (don’t worry, you don’t have to know everything right away), and we’ll follow up with three personalized matches based on the preferences that you share. You can then book a free phone consultation with one or all three of your matches, and you can receive guidance here about what to ask or what to share during your phone call(s) to gauge your fit). All the while, you have our team’s support in your back pocket, all in an effort to make finding your fit that much easier.

It is absolutely possible to overcome and prevent compassion fatigue. In therapy, you will develop a trust-fueled relationship with an objective, third-party partner-in-crime to unpack the obstacles that are facing you day-to-day, gain perspective on the roots of some of those dynamics, and begin clicking the puzzle pieces together toward a lighter, more joyful, and more sustainable future.


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About the author

Alyssa Petersel, Co-Founder and CEO of My Wellbeing and author of Somehow I Am Different, graduated from Northwestern University in 2013 with dual BA degrees in psychology and international studies, graduated summa cum laude from New York University in May 2017 with her Master's in Social Work, and graduated from The Writer's Institute non-fiction program at CUNY Graduate Center in May 2017. A native New Yorker, Alyssa now lives in Brooklyn and enjoys running, coffee, community, and social justice.