Compassion Fatigue

Article first published on

Compassion Fatigue is a clinical term to describe the extreme, functional burn out of people in the helping professions. Nurses, paramedics, social workers and psychologists are all “first responders”, whose resilient and compassionate personality types can eventually erode until they find themselves looking for a job as a travel agent. As a psychologist myself I spend most of my time within the world of struggle and I can tire to the point of assuming that struggle is the rule and not the exception.

The impacts of similar phenomena at a societal level, can have just as significant an impact. Even the mention of the names of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the two convicted drug smugglers recently executed by the Indonesian Government, can leave the most compassionate of my friends shaking their heads and mumbling that they don’t want to talk about it anymore. A compassion fatigue of sorts, on a communal scale. A mental exhaustion that was strained long before the deaths of the two men. The incessant focus of mass media, both institutionalised and social, has saturated our awareness with their names and plights to the point where the intensity of focus will lean as heavily on our opinions, or the expression of such, as all the complex political variables that are gradually laid bare.

This fatigue is something to consider when you find many have dropped the topic as fickly as many commercial media outlets will have in a few days’ time. When I am talking to clients about coping with a circumstantial stressor, which has been punishing them for far longer than they had ever predicted, we often work on shifting to a curiosity toward the dynamics between themselves and the stressor. If it is the case of a ruthless manager we would work on becoming curious of the motivations that trigger the behaviour, such as the need for control or the conflict between personality traits. Knowing the dynamics behind the impact can shift attention away from the instinctual human shriek “Why am I under attack?”.

We all have an innate drive to define the dangers that befall others as resulting from their own character flaws. This creates a sense of being safe ourselves as we benefit from feeling different from those in danger, and therefore less at risk. However for those of us who have compassion for the tragic outcomes of others, including Chan and Sukumaran, their circumstances will seem beyond our control and as a result our compassion will be sapped.

The executions of Chan and Sukumaran will trigger these instincts, and the saturation of the story will stoke our fears. As their lives fade from the public discourse, consider the impact that media saturation has on your capacity for compassion? As most of us feel powerless in the face of international politics, our dialogue seems the last place to exert power, to construct social norms. But it is through talking, when we are tired of talking, that we begin to see the importance of sustaining compassion as it importantly leads to a communal reduction in the sense of feeling under attack. We need to be resilient enough to act with compassion toward those who are too afraid to expend any more. This can lead to a greater sustained capacity for action even when we are worn out by the inevitable commercialisation of these very values. But this fight to care affects us all. It is a fight that must continue and one that gives inspiration to those of us lucky enough to still be alive.