Empath Compassion Fatigue: 7 Signs You Have It + How To Heal

empath compassion fatigue

If you’re an empath, you are all too familiar with overwhelm and burnout. But did you know that you are also particularly susceptible to something called “empath compassion fatigue”?

It turns out that for empaths, who literally feel the emotions and energy of others, compassion is not a limitless resource. Empath compassion fatigue is the point when you reach your limit. Suddenly, you realize that your emotional stores are depleted and your compassion has been replaced by apathy, or even anger.

Compassion fatigue, which is also known as “secondary traumatization”, is caused by the emotional residue from working with people or animals who have suffered from trauma. This can occur after exposure to one trauma case, or it can be cumulative.

You see, all the pain and suffering you encounter can build up over time. Layer after layer settles on your gentle empath heart and soul. Eventually, it weighs you down, and quells your motivation.

Who suffers from empath compassion fatigue?

While all empaths are susceptible to compassion fatigue, there are some who are more at risk than others. Compassion fatigue is considered to be an occupational hazard for anyone working in a caregiving role.

Careers that commonly lead to empath compassion fatigue include:

  • doctor
  • counsellor
  • psychologist
  • nurse
  • EMT
  • support worker
  • veterinarian
  • animal shelter worker

As you can see, careers that place empaths in close contact with those who have suffered trauma inevitably lead to empath compassion fatigue.

But what about all the unofficial caregivers out there?

Oftentimes, empaths attract or are attracted to those in need. You are drawn in by the stories of shame and suffering. You literally feel the pain of trauma victims, and you want to make it all better. You are the one your friends and family turn to when they are in pain. They share their darkest thoughts and experiences with you: abuse, addictions, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, depression, illness.

You begin cutting off pieces of yourself to offer as medicine. You give them a listening ear and an open heart. You even set aside precious real estate in your head, allowing their pain and suffering to take up permanent residence in your mind.

After a while, you have nothing left to give. This is when the signs of empath compassion fatigue emerge.

7 Signs of empath compassion fatigue

  1. Your sense of empathy and compassion is replaced by numbness.
  2. You are emotionally and mentally exhausted.
  3. You are hypersensitive to emotional material in shows, movies, and books.
  4. You struggle with intimacy, and your personal relationships suffer.
  5. You intentionally isolate yourself.
  6. Your mind is filled with intrusive images of trauma.
  7. You dread going to work, and no longer enjoy your career.

How to heal from empath compassion fatigue

Needless to say, compassion fatigue wears you down, and leaves you feeling beyond depleted. It’s as if all the horror stories you’ve heard act like an sos pad on your life-force. So, how do you heal from all the secondary trauma, and regain your motivation and happiness?

Here are 3 steps to prevent and overcome empath compassion fatigue:

Awareness

Simply knowing that compassion fatigue is a real thing, and that you are not crazy, or weak, can kickstart the healing process. Understanding your empathic nature will also help. For example, when you are aware of how deeply you are effected by the moods and emotions of those around you, you can take steps to protect yourself.

This is exactly what Sarah, an empath and INFJ who is a member of our private INFJ Forum has learned to do:

“I often leave groups feeling depressed with emotions that I have sensed in others. They have no connection to me, but I have this strange feeling that if I live in their emotions, I can help them. But it does not help them; the best thing I can do is to see it and be aware, so that I can act without letting my own feelings get in the way. Sometimes, before I enter a room of people I say to myself, “Not mine, not mine!” and brush my shoulders to remind myself of my purpose in that situation.”

(INFJ personality types are particularly susceptible to compassion fatigue because they are highly empathic and tend to be drawn to caregiving or counsellor careers. Go here for more information on INFJs.)

The good news is that simply by reading this article, you have already increased your awareness about yourself and your needs. I also recommend taking this Compassion Satisfaction/Fatigue Self-Test for Helpers, which allows you to assess your “compassion status”. This includes your risk of burnout, and compassion fatigue.

Self-care

Many empaths in helping professions struggle with self-care. You are so busy caring for others that you neglect your own needs. Often, you even feel guilty for thinking of putting yourself first. You wonder, how can I take a bath, or go for a walk in solitude when there are people suffering all around me?

The more important question you should be asking is, how can I not?

No one can pour from an empty cup. Regularly exercising self-compassion by taking care of your mind, body, and soul will help you to prevent compassion fatigue.

What does this look like on a practical level?

Self-care can be as simple as a one-syllable world. It can mean saying ‘no’ to unnecessary obligations, and ‘yes’ to activities that make your heart smile.

infj empath compassion fatigue

Lisa, an empath and INFJ, is all too familiar with the pain of compassion fatigue, and the self-care steps necessary for healing:

“Compassion fatigue is what ultimately led to my decision to retire from the psychotherapy profession following a 25-year career that involved a significant amount of counseling other survivors of severe trauma and abuse, as well as what prompted me to take the extreme step of completely stopping watching television and eliminating all electronic and print news and ‘infotainment’ media from my life approximately one year after that.”

If you still need more convincing about self-care, consider this: Even Mother Teresa knew the importance of taking time to restore oneself from compassionate work. In her plan to her superiors, she required her nuns to take a mandatory year off every 4-5 years so that they could heal from their caregiving work.

Surely, you can justify taking 20-30 minutes a day to replenish your own compassion stores.

Counselling

Helpers need help, too. There is no need to carry the burden on your own. Allow a professional counsellor, psychologist, or healer to guide you through the process of healing. Be sure to choose someone who is familiar with treating compassion fatigue.

The most important thing is to never lose hope. Though it may take time, the clouds will part and your compassion will return. Jeff, another INFJ empath from our INFJ community, explains:

“For the last 2 years after a 23-year relationship with a narcissist, I was a mess. I was processing all kinds of thoughts and feelings. I didn’t even realize I had lost my compassion … Then about 2 months ago, I drove by a young homeless family standing in a grocery store parking lot. Something inside me told me to turn around and help them. Later, as I was driving home, I suddenly realized my compassion had returned, and I didn’t even know I had lost it! Tears of joy filled my eyes. It was like welcoming home a long lost friend.”

Battered and beaten down though she may be, compassion is a true friend who wants and needs to be in your life. Invite her back in through awareness, self-care, and guided healing. Allow your broken pieces to be restored, so that you can continue sharing your light and love with the world.

Do you struggle with empath compassion fatigue?

I would love to hear about your experiences, and how you healed. Please share your insights and stories in the comments below. ♥

Love,

 

20 Comments

  1. An incredibly insightful article Michaela! You explained so many vital aspects of empathy and how it works, not to mention excellent solutions on how to deal with empathy compassion fatigue. Like you said, self care is crucial. We cannot give and pour from an empty cup, and we too need to take care of ourselves. This is an beautiful article with phenomenal conclusions and thoughts. 🙂

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    • Thank you Marko! 🙂

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  2. I`ve just printed out this article and am wondering if it really can be applied to me. Especially numbers 2,3,4 and 5. E.g. I start weeping for happiness, seeing persons be helped out of their problems. Driving with my e-tricyle bike in the nature I feel so overwhelmed by the surrounding beauty, that I feel myself as if in paradise….Each flower, a singing bird makes me very ‘excited’ So it seems I associate myself stronly with a happy or sorrowful person, thinking ‘it`s me!’ Maybe it sounds strange to you Michaela. Even memories from the past can make me cry again, the lost of 2 children, my two mothers- own mother and foster mother-but I cannot help it. In summary: when he or she is happy, or is suffering, I feel it too. Sorry for the long story

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    • Hi Gerard, well I don’t know if you’re struggling with compassion fatigue, but you sound like a beautifully sensitive and self-aware empath. Thanks for sharing your story!

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  3. Thank you Michaela.. Yeah.. Just Thank you

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    • You’re welcome, Joe!

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  4. Hello Michaela,
    Your article is true 97%. I haven’t healed but l manage through. I have shut myself off from the world when was 15 now in a week ill be 49. The last 4 years are the biggest change I’ve done. I stopped working for a city government job of 20 years and all other work was doing for other people. I traveled a little then started working after 358 days after stopped. Now I’m back working likeI was 7 days a week. With a $40,000. pay cut. And working for others. I haven’t watched tv in those 4 years unless some whereI was had it on. I don’t read the papers or the internet news. I have no friends but know a lot of people. My phone rings only when someone needs me to fix, build or make something for them. I have been married 3 times each one was doomed from the start because of me. They needed help. I did what needed to be done then they moved on. Now I cannot se myself with anyone. I just se me every day sitting at home alone listening to the radio. I’m stubborn so it’s hard to listen to others advise even if I’m looking for it. I will not spend money on material that will help me cause don’t like to read and I have a very hard time understanding. I’m happiest when I work or when I travel by myself. Thank you for the articals I receive from you, to be honest I read only the ones that catch my attention. Have a wonderful day or evening. Always, lonely heart

    Reply
    • Thank you for sharing your story Shawn. I’m sure others will be able to see themselves in what you shared. xo

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  5. I just learned about Compassion Fatigue within the past couple of weeks at school. Turns out it is one of those things that can just sort of latch on until One becomes aware and takes the proper self healing steps to remedy the situation. I am finding that a daily reiki or meditation practice is helping and when I use the new self-hypnosis I am learning, I am able to remove some of the subconscious flotsam that stirs up some havoc.
    It’s funny, “…how can I take a bath, or go for a walk in solitude when there are people suffering all around me?” This thought has kept me pinned in place, once I broke the spell of fear, I found that the benefit of water and or walking in nature was enough to create a peaceful barrier between myself and the general populace at large and provided me with a pleasant buffer zone when I do have to interact where emotion is required.

    Great article Michaela, thanks for sharing and I Hope you have a Great Day!

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing that, Brian! Self-hypnosis sounds interesting, I’ll have to look into it. 🙂

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  6. I can definitely relate to this. I am a nurse spending a lot of my working week listening to troubled adolescents. Our service is now going through a restructure which is creating a lot of job cuts and it is this which is tipping me over in to compassion fatigue. Feeling undervalued takes its toll! Thank you, this has reminded me to prioritise some soul cleansing time.
    As an INFJ and I think an empath I do literally sense and absorb the emotions of others and have begun to shut myself away as a protective mechanism. Not good for me or my family.
    A well timed reminder. Thank you again x

    Reply
    • You’re welcome, Beth. Great to hear from another INFJ empath. 🙂

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  7. Thank you so much for this article! I feel the fatigue that you are talking about, and I don’t know what to do. For example, I want to know what is happening in my city or in the world, but just reading or watching about all the tragedy in the news makes me feel so bad, because I have this empathy. So there are times where I just avoid everything, Facebook, the news because I need self-care, just like you said.

    Reply
    • Maybe that is the only way to go about it – avoid the news and Facebook.

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  8. As an INFJ pastor’s wife for 15 years or so, I was the counselor, fixer, filler-inner, music leader, children’s ministry leader, VBS director… it was inevitable that burn out and compassion fatigue would consume me and my husband. We were not good deligators, and like to do for, and help others. It was a struggle to get volunteers to help who didn’t require more help to train than to just do the jobs ourselves. We lost our joy of ministry and were physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. Is it any wonder so many churches are closing down. We decided to retire from ministry and move to another state to try to recuperate and heal. I’m so glad we did. We have learned so much about self care. It has taken 5 years to even want to enter another church. Our overall health has improved and we have enjoyed focusing on our family for awhile. We take time for walks, kayaking, and even just music. Wish I had read your articles back when we were ministering to others. We might still be doing it. Thank you for helping me to see what I feel and have been through is normal for my personality. I am not an emotionally crazy person. :0)

    Reply
    • Thanks for sharing your story Julie! I used to be very active in a Pentecostal church, so I can imagine how exhausting your work must have been. I’m happy that you learned to restore yourself through self-care, even if it took a while. xo

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  9. Yes! I recognise this all to well. When I was a little girl, My sister was bullied in her school, and me and my family had to comfort her and be her therapists 24/7
    I remember my mom sometimes stayed up all night comforting her and in the morning she went to work as always! When it was real bad I started to hallucinate the sound of her crying so I couldn’t sleep wery well. Put on a few years of this nonstop crying and you start to break down completely. Also my best friends mom had died tragically in a car crash, and sometimes I felt as I had to carry her around in life, yet my own fault but I wasent aware! On top of that I worked as a personal assistant to a handicapped girl that was no good for me. A was also in a 7 year old relationship that were coming to its end. Crash boom bang I hit the wall and the recovery was a long one. What I’ve learned from this! Always listen to your heart! Never carry someone else’s grief! Never work as a personal assistent again, and never be a counselor to your own family. Warm hugs from me

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  10. Thanks so much Michaela for this article. During the first 5 years of marriage, every time I told my husband I was not able to watch a movie, because I was not ready to absorb the pain in it, he looked at me like there was something wrong with me. I even thought I was making things up when I was feeling the pain of people in movies (or around me!). I could not understand what was going on, It was so exhausting. Now, 15 years later, my husband knows what kind of news I can watch. He tries, every evening, to summarize the morst important news and leave the rest out. Now, he understands how hard it is for me! Thanks for this article, I thought it was just me!

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  11. Oh, my gosh! I think I have finally figured out what’s wrong with me! Out of those 7 signs of empath compassion fatigue, I can definitely say that I have 4 of them. I just thought I was feeling overwhelmed from the many stresses with which I have been dealing over the past few weeks. But this overpowering feeling has been strongest since Monday or Tuesday. But that makes sense because I interacted quite a bit with a homeless man on Sunday and then interacted with that same homeless man on Tuesday.

    And you know, just having a name to give this “problem” really helps! I can’t fix something when I don’t know what’s wrong. Thank you for this article! Thank you for giving me a name for this problem. And thank you for helping me know how to cope and how to heal.

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  12. Lovely to have found my way here. As a lifelong novelist, INFJ, and empath (HSP thrown in, too), I found I had reached my limits — seven of seven of the Compassion Fatigue list — and withdrew from the world. I continued to work and to write but withdrew from teaching and counseling, media of all sorts, newspapers, magazines, and any social engagements outside of a couple of trusted friends. I have lost friends over the years for refusing to take public transportation, go to concerts or large social events, join clubs or groups. More often, however, are the odd looks when the radio is too loud or a TV show is painfully violent. I have found I need to remind myself to be aware of when I’m giving too much as I become resentful when that effort and the depth of my feeling is not acknowledged or appreciated. It can be a dark cycle. Meditation, yoga, breathing, and writing are my salvation. Also, finding those who are not only great writers — thank you, Michaela and the other writers here — but empaths and INJF’s that share the same experience of the world is validating, helpful, and healing. Namaste, and thank you for the work and effort you’ve put into this website.

    Reply

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