Compassion Fatigue: The Cost of Caring

What Is Compassion Fatigue

What happens when feeling empathy and care for others creates suffering in us?

This type of suffering is known as compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue “is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it can create a secondary traumatic stress for the helper” (Charles Figley, Ph.D.).

The Cost of Caring

The gradual process of developing compassion fatigue is also called the “cost of caring.”


Without careful boundaries, self-care, and support, compassion fatigue can deplete our ability to feel care for others. When constantly exposed to others’ pain (human or animal), it can become increasingly exhausting to maintain compassion.

Although this usually comes up for individuals directly providing care for others, with increased media exposure to suffering worldwide, it is likely that anyone can begin to experience compassion fatigue. Every day we hear about disasters and tragedies through news and social media. It is heartbreaking to know how much pain there is in the world. While it is important to be courageous in acknowledging this pain, it is equally important to take care of ourselves so we don’t become indifferent. This can be an opportunity to increase our capacity to tolerate, or be with the pain, instead of ignoring it.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue

Here are some signs of compassion fatigue, some of which are similar to signs of burnout:


  • Feeling numb
  • Disconnected from others
  • Irritable
  • Cynical
  • Bored
  • Anxious
  • Depressed
  • Difficulty with focus and/or memory
  • Suppressing emotions


  • Over-involved with, or avoidant of others
  • Self-medicating or engaging in addictive behaviors
  • Isolating yourself
  • Absent from or late to work
  • Decreased productivity


  • Difficulty sleeping and/or experiencing nightmares
  • Unexplained pains and aches
  • Fatigue
  • Significant weight changes

Help for Compassion Fatigue

Compassion fatigue can be addressed when you are aware of these signs. It’s important to not deny your experiences and be honest with yourself. By managing compassion fatigue, it’s possible to develop resilience and strength.

Some of the ABC’s for recovering from compassion fatigue:

Awareness of signs. Reflect on what may have led to moments of frustration or apathy. This will help identify triggers that can contribute to compassion fatigue. Is caring for certain issues, managing specific concerns or performing a particularly difficult task leading to a change in your mood? 

Social Support Helps Improve Well-Being

Balance in time at work and home. Make time for friends and family, hobbies and leisure. As much as possible don’t take work home and set boundaries around communication. For instance, don’t respond to emails after 8pm. Set limits on social media or news. Take a “digital vacation” and instead focus on practices that rejuvenate you. Compassion fatigue grows when there is an imbalance.    

Connections with others and yourself. Share how you feel with those who feel safe and validating. Communicate what you may need: someone to just listen to you, distract you, or offer advice. Talking about your experiences instead of suppressing feelings will build resilience and give others permission share as well. Also, remind yourself of all the good in your life and in the world as well.

For such reminders you may wish to turn to:

Good News Network

Positive News

An additional tip for coping with compassion fatigue is to accept the reality that life contains tremendous suffering. While this can be difficult to do or make sense of, it is also important to remind yourself that the world needs people who care and feel empathy. So it’s crucial to develop awareness and intentional self-care practices that would allow us to be with the pain of others while protecting our own hearts and minds.

Cultivate Compassion Satisfaction

Did you know that the opposite of compassion fatigue is a concept called compassion satisfaction? You can derive compassion satisfaction from the feeling of contentment you get when you know you have performed your job well, made a difference in someone’s life or the world at large, and when you maintain positive relationships with your work colleagues. Participating in activities that feel in line with your personal values can provide you with a feeling of fulfillment.

Compassion Satisfaction

In service of this, try to be honest with yourself about what feels most meaningful to you in life. Take stock of what aspects of your professional life align with your values. Continuing to move towards those things or brainstorming how you could connect to them in new ways can give you a renewed sense of purpose.

It’s important to remember that cultivating compassion satisfaction is not a guarantee that compassion fatigue or job stress disappears. In fact, it’s possible you may experience them simultaneously. What’s most important to note, however, is that compassion satisfaction can help you become a long distance runner rather than a sprinter. It can serve as glue that holds everything together when you encounter storms of professional stress. Cultivating compassion satisfaction, along with a dedicated self-care routine, and strong social support can decrease the impact and likelihood of compassion fatigue and other emotional problems.

Should you recognize within yourself some of the signs of compassion fatigue, be kind to yourself, remember the ABC’s listed above and if needed reach out to a mental health professional. We are here to help you regain your footing!