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Compassion fatigue is characterized by symptoms of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion. Often referred to as the negative cost of caring and the secondary effects of stress. ~ Web MD
As carers, we may fall into one or many of these identities and categories—nurturer, wife, husband, parent, nurse, police officer, educator. Nurturing industries pay a high economic cost for compassion fatigue. The cost is mentally, physically, and emotionally drained humans.
I like to call compassion fatigue: empty tank syndrome.
Empty tank syndrome happens when we spend most of our day giving out to everyone else and never giving ourselves anything in return—the great rejection of self.
The laws of the universe dictate reciprocity with equal give and take to maintain inner and outer balance. In accounting, they call it the debit and credit section. Similar to when we look at our online banking, to check our debit and credit (receiving in), we need to also do this in our life by checking where we are giving and receiving.
Working within healthcare for several years, I had not been educated to give back to myself to maintain balance in all four areas of life—mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual.
My upbringing did not teach those skills, nor did my education. I am a child of the 80s and 90s, and self-care and self-love were considered selfish or egotistical. Mental health (in Australia at least) was something that was pushed away and into the darkness.
When I started my nursing career, I was filled with excitement to do the one thing I am insanely good at—helping people. Helping people is my superpower and has been since childhood. But, I didn’t realize at the time that the excessive need to help everyone else would come at a detriment to my well-being.
I left my clinical nursing post after experiencing something I did not know existed at the time—burnout, compassion fatigue, or empty tank syndrome, as I like to put it. This was a concept that was never spoken about openly or discussed. It was our job to come to work, do the work, and not complain, as we chose this industry, and if we didn’t like it, we should move on.
After many years of dealing with empty tank syndrome and the lack of decent sleep due to shift work, I chose to move on. I starkly realized I’m not a tree after all. I didn’t do it because I wanted to, but because I had to, for my sanity, well-being, and family (that was at the time, still together.)
After a six-month break, I had to decide what was next for me. So, I trotted off to university to study the fascinating world of commerce and behavioral science (finance and psychology). I didn’t know it at the time, but these crucial pieces of education and experiences would help shape and mold my knowledge on human behavior and health outcomes, not only for other people but also for myself.
Identifying compassion fatigue and the effects on self:
When we are so used to giving and giving to others, how do we then turn that around and start receiving and filling up our internal banking system to continue doing what we love without being called selfish or egotistical?
First, we need to understand what true selfishness and egotism are. Selfishness is where someone takes more than they give—a form of entitlement. Egotism is another form of selfishness; however, these decisions often come from a place of pain, usually developed from unmet needs in childhood.
Empaths need to learn to say no because one of their downfalls is, they hate saying no to people. They also hate disappointing others and are often people-pleasers who lack boundaries and prefer to fix other people’s problems instead of their own. Giving first to everyone else before themselves is a way to avoid facing their stark reality. Over-giving and people-pleasing come from a place of emotional trauma. Only in healing can we truly stop the cycle of burnout, people-pleasing, perfectionism, and self-sacrifice.
Simone Biles was all over the media recently, having decided to choose herself and her own mental and physical well-being over disappointing the team. Simone knew that by going with the herd, her teammates, she would be rejecting herself and her own mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Yet, she was vilified and celebrated.
Do you know what Simone avoided here? She avoided secondary emotional and mental trauma. The first instance was when she said, “I need a break.” She acknowledged her teammates and was humble about her experiences. However, her “I love you, but I love me more” stance was one of bravery, and it saved her from further (secondary) stress and emotional trauma. It doesn’t mean she is gone forever unless her manager wrongfully deemed her so. It means she comes back stronger than ever.
Another example is the airline saying, “You must always put on your own oxygen mask first.” As a mother, when I first heard that sentence, I thought it was a ridiculous thing to say. Now years later, I get it. If we are empathic and compassionate by nature, this is a superpower that can be taken advantage of if we do not have strong personal boundaries like Simone Biles. We need faith so strong that everything will work out for us eventually in choosing ourselves and our healing.
How do we reduce compassion fatigue?
As an empath, these are two questions that have helped me recover from compassion fatigue:
>> What do you value for yourself?
>> What do you believe?
Get comfortable with being called “selfish.” Get comfortable with saying no. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and having uncomfortable conversations.
Making new behavioral changes takes time. It’s what the beautiful Louise Hay calls vacillation. When we create new habits and behaviors, the brain goes through a period of vacillation.
Think about it this way. When babies start to talk, they babble and garble and mince their words. They say one word first, then a few more. Until one day, a whole sentence comes spewing out of their mouths.
That, my friends, is vacillation. The brain makes new neural pathways and a new superhighway of amazing.
If we want to stop draining our tank for everyone else, live a life of peace and joy, and feel healthier, we need to learn our own emotional and mental needs: a term I like to describe as verbal economics.
Generally, empaths and people pleasers have downloaded the stories of others in childhood and never fully stopped to question (in adulthood) if those stories are theirs or someone else’s.
A beautiful little domino effect. When we show up as a whole person, especially as an empathic nurturer, we are doing the one thing we always wanted to do—helping people.
By understanding and loving ourselves, we give others the same permission slip we are giving to ourselves. And they too can live by the saying: “I love you, but I love me more.”
When we see others doing what we are doing for ourselves, it’s the best feeling. Then, we can all swap and share stories of greatness!