Compassion Fatigue, Empathy Fatigue and Attachment Fatigue: Important Terms for Self-Care
Written by: Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D.
March 2, 2022
“Compassion Fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people or animals in distress; it 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.
While the term “compassion fatigue” has been around since the early nineties, until the pandemic, it was mostly used in describing distress associated with duties of counselors, health care and human service workers—helpers whose daily work is about supporting those who are suffering. Due to the pandemic, compassion fatigue may be applicable to virtually all whose work involves helping, supporting and directing others. While care and special assistance team members do not routinely care for those who are suffering, the popularity of the term has caused much discussion about how it does or does not apply to employee teams who respond following a traumatic loss in their workplace. In this month’s consciousness@work article I will clarify terms that may be helpful in self-care, a major topic included in Human Services Response™ (HSR) Training.
The term compassion fatigue may be a misnomer because compassion is usually energizing.
-Christopher Germer, American Psychologist
Psychologist Christopher Germer addresses the subject of compassion fatigue in Cultivating Compassion in Psychotherapy, a chapter in his book Wisdom and Compassion in Psychotherapy. Inthis book which he co-authored with psychologist Ronald D. Seigel, he differentiates between compassion fatigue and empathy fatigue. Germer states that empathy fatigue is perhaps a more accurate term for describing distress associated with suffering alongside someone we are assisting during a difficult time, than compassion fatigue.
Compassion entails a sense of tenderness and care that embraces the suffering of others rather than struggling with it.
-Kristin Neff, Christopher Germer, American Psychologists
The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook
The terms empathy and compassion are often used interchangeably, but for purposes of self-care, it is important that we consider the difference. Empathy suggests that we suffer the same as someone we are assisting, whereas compassion is a positive emotion, an energizing emotion. Most definitions of compassion include feelings of empathy for the primary one who is suffering along with a strong desire to relieve the suffering.
One research study showed the difference between empathy and compassion. Subjects were trained to experience both empathy and compassion and later watched a film depicting others’ suffering. Only when the subjects experienced compassion were there signs of positive emotions.
Germer and Neff in their discussion of the need for helpers to practice compassion for themselves, state that if we just resonate with the suffering of others without having emotional resources to hold it, we will become exhausted.
In helping caregivers understand the difference between empathy and compassion, they point out that with empathy we would say, “I feel you.” Whereas with the practice of compassion, we would say “I hold you.” Knowing the difference between the suffering of the survivor and our own personal emotions, allows us to remain balanced. Confusing a survivor’s suffering with our own may result in losing control of our own emotions. Survivors need leadership, and if we are suffering alongside them, we cannot lead them through the complicated processes associated with the aftermath of a workplace disaster.
Compassion fatigue may be better termed attachment fatigue.
In HSR Training™, we emphasize that feeling empathy for the survivors is essential. Yet, we must not over identify with them. Feeling for those we are assisting is a must, but feeling compassion allows us to honor the difference between their suffering and our own. A major purpose of training is to help the team members understand the parameters of their role, including the difficult, but necessary task of separating from the survivors at the end of an assignment.
Clinging to certain outcomes and expectations, including becoming attached to how an assignment might turn out is a potential problem for all team members. When we are able to separate our needs from those for whom we are caring, without being attached to the outcome, we are better able to support them. Managing our boundaries allows us to provide compassionate leadership, which should be the goal of care team responders.
The pandemic has left many formal and informal care givers with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and a desire to do better in future assignments. This situation has also led to greater attention on the subject of care giver stress and burnout. Much is being learned about preventing compassion fatigue and even burnout. Our next article will review research that shows what is helping other care givers avoid the potentially harmful effects of assisting others. In closing, the following quote reminds us of the power of compassion.
If you want others to be happy, practice compassion, and if you want yourself to be happy practice compassion.