Highly Sensitive Refuge
a highly sensitive person suffers from compassion fatigue

For HSPs, Compassion Fatigue Is All Too Real

Signs of compassion fatigue include chronic exhaustion, isolation, trouble sleeping, and more.

A couple of years ago, I realized that too much internet is really bad for me. This realization came after months of checking the news first-thing upon waking. At the same time, I was in a few Facebook mental health support groups that I’d check multiple times a day, offering help to others. Although I thought I was doing things “right” by staying informed and being available to many other people for emotional support, underneath it all, I was not doing okay.

I would start my day already exhausted (despite a full night’s sleep), I was irritable, I was rarely doing things I enjoyed, and I began to isolate myself from the world. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was suffering from several common symptoms of compassion fatigue. This was nothing I would have even considered at the time, though, because I didn’t think I could have it.

As it turns out, none of us are immune to compassion fatigue, especially highly sensitive people — and it’s important we know how to recognize it.

What Is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is a preoccupation with the suffering of others that causes chronic stress and tension. In other words, it means caring so much that it creates secondary traumatic stress in the carer. Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:

  • Chronic exhaustion (both physical and emotional)
  • Isolation
  • Apathy
  • Feelings of blame or resentment towards the sufferer
  • Irritability 
  • Headaches
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Depersonalization (feeling as if you’re observing your body from the outside or that your surroundings aren’t real)

Compassion fatigue originally applied to those in caring professions, such as caregivers, therapists, nurses, or veterinarians, who are around suffering — often, unspeakable suffering — on a daily basis. However, we now live in a world where pain and suffering are present on our TV and computer screens 24 hours a day. 

We can hear of a school shooting across the country within minutes of it happening. We can know about the conditions in other countries from a few taps on a smartphone. We’ve all seen the animal abuse videos or other well-meaning causes as we scroll through social media. It’s a lot for our brains to process — often too much. 

In our constantly-connected modern days, anyone can be at risk of compassion fatigue. However, highly sensitive people, or HSPs, may be especially vulnerable to it.

Are HSPs Prone to Compassion Fatigue?

HSPs have incredible empathy, and they have strong emotional reactions to things. They often feel exhausted after being around strong emotions — or, in this case, pain or suffering — in others. HSPs can actually absorb others’ emotions as their own. While this is a wonderfully empathic quality, it can be dangerous from a mental health standpoint. If HSPs are not careful, they can collapse under the weight of others’ experiences. 

Interestingly, emerging research has suggested the term “compassion fatigue” be replaced with  “empathic distress fatigue” because it may be based on high levels of empathy more than anything else. Empathy is an HSP’s second language, which would explain why HSPs are probably more likely to experience compassion fatigue than others. 

Because of their high empathy and sensitivity to others’ needs, HSPs are often drawn to caring professions — the ones where compassion fatigue rates are high. This means HSPs especially should be mindful of signs of compassion fatigue and burnout.

If you’re worried about suffering from compassion fatigue, it’s likely you already are. The first step toward remedying it is developing that awareness so you can move forward. There are also things you can do to prevent compassion fatigue from happening or worsening.

6 Ways to Prevent Compassion Fatigue

1. Limit your news and social media consumption.

Make a habit of noticing how you feel when watching the news or scrolling through social media. For me, I know I’ve “consumed” too much when I start to feel anxious, mad, or completely overwhelmed. My HSP brain tells me I need to watch or read these things to stay informed. But I’ve recognized that it’s not actually helping anyone if I’m too overwhelmed to function. 

Track how much time you’re spending on your phone and watching the news, then compare it to when you notice the information starts to affect your mood. Try setting a daily limit for how long you will do these activities, after which you’ll turn them off and be more present with life in front of you. 

2. Recognize what you can’t control.

Pain and suffering are part of life. HSPs really feel what others are going through, and they want to help, which can make it feel like we must fix everything and everyone. (I know because I’ve been there — many times!) However, it’s important to recognize that we cannot control a lot of the suffering that happens in the world. We can do the most good by being kind, listening carefully, and helping within our limits.

3. Identify inappropriate guilt.

It’s easy to spiral when experiencing compassion fatigue. Feelings of resentment or blame may turn into guilt at what you’re feeling, which pulls you further into darkness. It’s important to notice when you have what my therapist calls “inappropriate guilt.” These are thoughts that don’t actually hurt anyone else unless you act on them. 

Recognize that, if you are experiencing compassion fatigue, you might have feelings of resentment toward those in your care or those you see suffering (as strange as that may sound). While you might feel guilty about these thoughts, they are a completely normal part of compassion fatigue. They don’t make you a bad person, and since they are simply thoughts, the only person they can hurt is you. Resentment, judgment, or other negative thoughts act as a sign that you need more time to focus on yourself and work through your emotions — which ultimately helps both you and those in your care.

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4. Remember, everyone is their own person.

It’s often hard for HSPs to separate their experiences from those of other people. Boundaries are difficult when you can deeply empathize with what someone is going through and feel like you are in their shoes. However, it’s vital to remember that each person is different and their own separate person. 

Everyone deserves the space to walk in their own journey. It’s okay to put yourself in their shoes long enough to understand and empathize, but it is not healthy for either party to hold the sufferer’s pain as your own identity.

5. Have hobbies and self-care practices that are just for you

Many people who suffer from compassion fatigue were taught early on to care for others before themselves. They may struggle with self-care because they feel it’s a waste of time or selfish. Gradually incorporating self-care practices can help you get more comfortable with having compassion for yourself as well as others. 

For me, self-care looks like making time for activities I love: quiet reading, cooking healthy meals, home workouts, and practicing piano (a new hobby I’ve recently picked up). It includes saying no more to things that drain me, getting more sleep, and taking regular breaks.

Doing things you enjoy — for the simple reason that you enjoy them, outside of your work — takes your mind off the rest of the world and re-connects you with yourself. It reminds you that your inner world is just as deserving of compassion as other people.

6. Practice self-compassion.

HSPs are fantastic at recognizing suffering in others — but they tend to overlook it in themselves. You can practice self-compassion by recognizing that: 

  1. You are suffering (rather than ignoring it).
  2. Suffering is a part of the shared human experience.
  3. You can hold your negative thoughts and emotions in mindful awareness (rather than getting swept away with them).

Self-compassion can be a helpful practice for anyone prone to compassionate fatigue. In acute medical care nurses, for example, self-compassion has been shown to have a “moderating effect on compassion fatigue” and even help predict which individuals will suffer from it. Self-compassion can be grounding and prevent you from neglecting your own needs when overwhelmed by the suffering of others.

We live in a loud, digitally-connected, and information-overloaded world. Compassion fatigue is very real and especially common when you’re very sensitive to the pain of others. Thankfully, there are ways to gain perspective and develop a balance that keeps you not only afloat but thriving.

Do you suffer from compassion fatigue? How do you deal with it? Let me know in the comments below.

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