Compassion Fatigue: It’s a Real Thing!

Photo by Caju Gomes on Unsplash


When I began facing my mom’s health issues eight years ago, I felt alone. However, as this journey progresses, I’ve learned that many of us face taking care of parents at some point in life. Additionally, about 30% of the population takes care of a parent while raising children – the Sandwich Generation.


Often, caregivers experience something called compassion fatigue. Compassion fatigue is essentially becoming numb to the pain and suffering of another due to the frequency or repetitive nature of the problem. This seems to be common when there is increased exposure due to the amount of time a caregiver has been in this role, or because the caregiver was already in a role or profession that requires a lot of empathy and is burned out taking on the emotions of others. Ironically, that may be why a person was called to take on the role of caregiver in the first place.


Showing compassion for others is noble. It shows a person’s ability to be kind, selfless, and caring. So, compassion fatigue starts with compassion. Unfortunately, it can end in burnout.


A caregiver, nurse, or others in this role may extend themselves by relating to the person or people in their care. The problem arises when a caregiver’s compassion for others causes them to minimize personal problems because they don’t seem as grave as the person’s problems they are caring for. Eventually, minimizing personal care, personal hygiene, personal finances, or personal health can lead to fatigue in the caregiver or fatigue towards caring for a loved one.


I think anything that becomes routine can begin to feel insignificant. When we brought children home, changing a diaper seemed like a punishment, but after many diapers and poopy baths, poop became a normal part of motherhood. I even think about the first time I saw my children fall, and I felt so guilty. After I figured out falling was normal for toddlers, if nobody was bleeding, then we were good.


Similarly, this can become the case when dealing with an aging parent. We want them healthy, and we want them well, but over time (even years), the pain begins to seem normal. The complaints become so frequent that it can be difficult to determine whether a loved one is genuinely in pain or looking for concern. This can become exhausting.


My compassion fatigue manifested in negative thoughts towards myself for becoming upset with complaints, among other things.


I felt helpless to really make a change concerning my mom’s health. Ultimately, I decided to make other changes and reached out to her doctor, which lead to a consultation with a social worker. I then received some information on compassion fatigue.


Photo by jurien huggins on Unsplash


I appreciate the social worker very much for including some information for caregivers. Normally, the focus is not on me, and it shouldn’t be, but it was needed. I felt like I was able to exhale, knowing there were words for how I was feeling, and that I’m not a bad person for having such feelings!


I was relieved just knowing that what I was experiencing was normal and had a name. I felt okay with the idea that I, too, need help. I felt more at ease in keeping up my fitness routine because it keeps my stress low, and I was fine with the idea that maybe I need to get out of my house a little more often.


One thing that I think is unique about caring for parents and children at the same time is that I balance between learning to not worry over small things I can’t control with my mom and feeling like I’m being a good role model for my children. My children watch our interactions, and they can’t tell the difference between my minimizing a concern for my own sanity and not following a direction.


Children are more perceptive than I’ve realized. I often find them trying to comfort me, but sometimes they can become disrespectful towards my mother, or my son and daughter will turn toward uncontrollable laughter, which can become just as distracting in tense moments.


I hope ultimately they don’t remember my disappointments and instead remember that I tried to set a good example for them in caring for others.


I’m not sure how my children experience this or that they even understand the complexities of the situation. I do believe that being a calmer mom and caregiver directly contributes to a calmer household, and I’m grateful for the information I needed to keep calm and seek out self-care.