How to Overcome Compassion Fatigue

Opening our gentle hearts

The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet. ~ Naomi Rachel Remen

Anyone who has been in a position of caregiving understands the toll and emotional exhaustion that can come if you don’t take care of yourself first. You very quickly find yourself running on empty and eventually filled with resentment where once your heart was a well of kindness.

Compassion fatigue has been described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterised by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and an uncharacteristic inability to feel empathy for others.

Compassion fatigue is also called ‘vicarious traumatisation’ or secondary traumatisation, where the emotional residue or strain of exposure to others who are suffering, or reliving traumatic incidents, impacts you and over time can become overwhelming, possibly even causing burnout.

An interesting aspect of compassion fatigue is that it leads to a lack of sensitivity to others, and can breed resentment, frustration and anger for people who are suffering. Mother Theresa understood this well, and in her care plans which she put forward to her superiors, she wrote that it was mandatory for her nuns to take an entire year off from their duties every 4-5 years to allow them to heal from the effects of their caregiving work. Studies have shown that nurses, care workers, child protection workers, law enforcement, counsellors and prison guards all suffer from high levels of emotional exhaustion.

Compassion fatigue has been described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others in pain. Image by Kevin LEE

Wired for Connection

Psychologists talk about compassion fatigue as being an occupational hazard. Because humans are wired for connection, at some point or another, we are all going to be overwhelmed by our feelings and possibly tip over into compassion fatigue.

The American Institute of Stress reports these symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:

– Nervous system arousal (Sleep disturbance)
– Emotional intensity increases
– Cognitive ability decreases
– Impaired behaviour and judgment
– Isolation and loss of morale
– Depression and PTSD
– Loss of self-worth and emotional wellbeing
– Identity, worldview, and spirituality impacted
– Beliefs/psychological needs around safety, trust, esteem, intimacy, and control, impacted
– Existential despair: Loss of hope and meaning
– Anger toward perpetrators or events causing trauma and suffering

So how do we care deeply for others, but stave off compassion fatigue? And is it even possible? In the UPLIFT film, Building Compassion, we’ve interviewed a range of global experts, spiritual teachers and scientists about compassion. The film shares some fascinating insights into compassion, from neurology and brain functioning to how compassion benefits us physiologically and emotionally, as well as how to discover compassion even for someone who murdered your child.

Compassion it seems, is something that must start with ourselves, in order for it to be deep, authentic and long lived.

Compassion must start with ourselves for it to be deep, authentic and long-lived. Image by Saltanat Zhursinbek

Split Directions

Saamdu Chetri, Executive Director of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre, says we spend much of our lives split in different directions. Our mind, body and thoughts are not unified and connected, and so we are not present.

When you’re connected with yourself then only you’re able to see others. This is a very important factor and then you’re able to relate with others and the compassion would flow out of that.

Maintaining a compassionate attitude he believes, is a practice and a skill.

We need to consider three things together in a body. Mind and thought must live with you that’s the first stage. Second stage is when that lives with you, you’re always aware. When you’re always aware then you see everything happening around you, you feel that suffering in you immediately. Like I said, a 200-year-old tree being cut, you’ll feel for it. Someone is destroying something of nature, you feel for it, maybe someone is shouting across somebody, you feel for it. You realise you’re better off than the other person and you like to give, you like to share your love, you like to share your thoughts and good wishes for that person.

When you’re connected with yourself then only you’re able to see others ~ Saamdu Chetri. Image by Dario Valenzuela

Caring for Oneself

The Dalai Lama must, of course, be the ultimate resource on compassion and how to overcome compassion fatigue. Not only from his perspective as a global spiritual master, but also as a refugee and someone who has experienced the tremendous suffering of his people over the last 60 years.

For someone to develop genuine compassion towards others, first she or he must have a basis upon which to cultivate compassion, and that basis is the ability to connect to one’s feelings and to care for one’s own welfare…Caring for others requires caring for oneself.

He emphasises that compassion is vital to our proper functioning and happiness as human beings.

Compassion gives us inner strength; it gives us self-confidence and that reduces fear, which, in turn, keeps our mind calm. Therefore, compassion has two functions: it causes our brain to function better and it brings inner strength.

Choosing Compassion When it Truly Counts

Compassion takes on a whole new level of meaning when something momentously destructive and painful happens in your life, and you have to find a pathway forward. Scarlett Lewis’ six year-old son, Jesse, was murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. She had to dig unbelievably deeply into her well of compassion to be able to move forward with her life. Scarlett says she knew she had a choice–to be a victim for the rest of her life, or to chart a new way forward. She chose love.

Choosing Love means having the courage to be grateful when life isn’t easy, to forgive when the person who hurt you is not sorry, and to step outside your own pain to help someone else.

Scarlett Lewis was able to genuinely find compassion for the man who murdered her son, once she understood his life circumstances. By choosing love in the face of terrible tragedy, Scarlett Lewis ignited her own hero’s journey, showing tremendous courage and an incredible capacity for greatness. Today she is the founder of the Jesse Lewis Choose Love Foundation — a social and emotional learning program which is now taught in schools in 44 states of America, and 13 countries across the globe.

While Scarlett lives with the pain of losing her son every day, she says helping others has been her salvation.

Service, doing for others, is the most powerful and profound trauma healing there is on the planet. It’s so powerful, it elongates our lives. When you do for others you have a 22% reduced risk of mortality. I remind myself that every day.

Everything that you give, you get back. So all of the nurturing, healing and love that you give out, you get back. And there’s science behind all this too. This has been my experience, but it’s true.

Her son showed tremendous courage the day he was killed, saving nine of his classmate’s lives. Scarlett Lewis is a shining and courageous example of the light of compassion in action, inspiring us all to do the same.

We all have the courage that Jesse showed that day…the courage to be kind and gentle. The courage to create peace even in the face of terror. The courage to respond to fear with love. The courage to tell the truth, to show up and be present.

Service, doing for others, is a powerful form of trauma healing. Image by Gus Moretta

Post Traumatic Growth and Altruism

Samuel Girguis, a Doctor of Psychology at APU, says of course tragedies are horrible:

But once they occur, we are presented with a choice. If we act on the inclination toward altruism that God has built into our psyches, we can advance the cause of good in the world.

New York psychologist, Marilyn Puder-York, lived and worked two blocks away from the World Trade Center. In an interview for the APA, she shared what helped her and how it led to become more spiritual.

Unless I went from victim to witness, I couldn’t extract some personal meaning to make this experience less than pure disaster. It would just be depressing. I think I witnessed what I did for a reason and survived for a reason.

Now, she says, she’s motivated by a sense of good in her work:

I used to coach executives to thrive in the marketplace and make more money…Now I want to help them find a way to put the good in business and be kinder and more resilient in the face of economic downslide.

What they’re talking about here is post-traumatic growth, the idea that you can grow through trauma and incredible life experiences.

The Key to Compassion

Being compassionate, being loving, helping others, and doing good in the community are fantastic for our health and make us feel really good. Good deeds and compassionate acts feed our self esteem, make us more feel connected and give us a sense of purpose in the world.

But the key to finding the light side of compassion and not falling prey to tremendous burnout, in the face of all the suffering in the world today, is self care. This is essentially where compassion begins. Compassion towards yourself leads to an open heart towards others and a heart that glows softly, no matter the troubles threatening to drown it.

Dr Kristin Neff is an associate professor in the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Educational Psychology. She has been researching self-compassion for over a decade.

If you are continually judging and criticising yourself while trying to be kind to others, you are drawing artificial boundaries and distinctions that only lead to feelings of separation and isolation.

Self-care prevents burnout in the face of all the suffering in the world. Image by Luemen Rutkowski

Practices to Help you Prevent Compassion Fatigue

Dr Neff identifies three components that work together for self-compassion: Self-kindness (rather than self-judgment), a sense of common humanity (rather than isolation) and mindfulness (rather than over-identification). She recommends practices such as Loving Kindness Meditation, mindfulness based practices, and breathing practices.

Compassion, then, involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering. It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help—to ameliorate suffering—emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognising our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.

Four simple keys to keeping your compassion vibrantly alive are:

  1. A daily practice and check-in that helps you to notice when you’re going out of balance. You can correct your course by meeting your needs, perhaps by resting more, connecting with a friend, doing something that nourishes you, or taking a break. If you catch the downward spiral when it starts, you can halt it and maintain equilibrium and compassion.
  2. Recharge your batteries daily. Basic self care habits like eating well, exercising, spending time in nature and relaxing, are vital to our wellbeing.
  3. Cultivate a mindfulness practice that keeps you in the present moment and simplifies your life, by focusing all your energy on one thing at a time, helps you to harness the healing power of solitude.
  4. Have one connected, meaningful conversation with your loved ones each day.
The world needs oru compassionate hearts more than ever. Image by Mara Ket

The Power of Metta, or Loving Kindness Meditation

A practice that is extremely helpful for keeping yourself resourced, is Loving Kindness Meditation or Metta. This practice, from the Buddhist tradition, cultivates unconditional kindness for ourselves and others. It also helps to dispel the helplessness that people can feel when faced with enormous global disasters, as it is a simple yet powerful way you can make a difference, from your own living room. Essentially the practice involves you sending prayers or good wishes to others.

To practice Loving Kindness Meditation, find a comfortable, relaxed seated meditative posture, then breathe into your heart, anchoring your awareness there. Begin to feel the love and gratitude that rests in your heart. You can use these traditional phrases, or your own words:

May I be free from inner and outer harm and danger. May I be safe and protected.

May I be free of mental suffering or distress. May I be happy.

May I be free of physical pain and suffering. May I be healthy and strong.

May I be able to live in this world happily, peacefully, joyfully, with ease.

You send these blessings to yourself first, then you visualize close family and friends and send it to them. Next see a neutral person and send them love and these prayers, and then visualise someone you are having difficulties with and say these phrases, sending love to them. Finally sending these prayers out to the whole world, or a specific area that may be experiencing trouble.

The world needs our compassionate hearts more than ever right now, and the place to start sharing and building compassion is in our own psyche, with our relationship with ourselves. If we grow our own compassion, then let that flow out into our families, our communities and our planet, we will surely seed a radical change in the world.

BY Lila Lieberman



Notify of
1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
kamir bouchareb st
2 years ago


Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
Feel Your Body
Relax your body, and just be aware of how your body feels. Without changing anything, notice what you are feeling, and where you are feeling things in your body.  If your body wants to adjust a little, let it. Be curious how it feels as your body relaxes.

Subscribe to UPLIFT's free Newsletter

Get our regular newsletter sharing the latest updates, articles, films and events.