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Caregiving
Mental & Emotional Health

How to Ward Off Compassion Fatigue

A willingness to see the needs of others and lend a helping hand can boost a person’s everyday happiness and make life more satisfying.

But sometimes the world’s problems can seem so overwhelming – and each person’s ability to solve them so limited – that “compassion fatigue” sets in.

Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon commonly found among people such as nurses, psychologists and first responders, says entrepreneur and philanthropist Tim McCarthy, author of Empty Abundance: Finding Meaning Through Mindful Giving (www.mindfulgiving.org).

“It boils down to gradual lessening of compassion over time – becoming numb to the painful experiences of others,” McCarthy says.

Even average people who volunteer for a worthy cause or provide care to a loved one can experience it, says McCarthy. And warding it off is important, he says, because compassion fatigue may lead to such symptoms as stress, anxiety, hopelessness and a negative outlook on life.

It’s the opposite of “helper’s high,” that euphoric feeling that can lift people psychologically when they perform acts of kindness.  “As great as my helper’s high can be, I will crash when I become compassion fatigued,” McCarthy says.

There’s no sure-fire way of avoiding compassion fatigue, but McCarthy offers these suggestions that could help.

•  Hold your compassion lightly and joyfully. Never take yourself too seriously, he adds. “It’s unlikely you will save the world any more than I will, but it is likely – no, it’s guaranteed – that if you only do what you can and do it gladly, adjusting as you learn from your mistakes, life’s moments of both joy and pain will be more fulfilling.”

•  Trust but verify. President Ronald Reagan famously expressed this Russian proverb as his philosophy when it came to monitoring an arms treaty with the Soviet Union. The approach works equally well when deciding how and when to help a person or organization, McCarthy says.

Sadly, in addition to the truly needy, there are those who will try to use you to get money or some other type of support when they don’t deserve anyone’s help, he says.

“There will always be fakers and fakers will wear you out,” he says. Try not to let them by doing a little research to make sure those you help are worthy of your efforts.

•  Unless you are trained for it, leave the direct service to the professionals. Some problems are best solved by those who have been properly trained. Not everyone has the right emotional makeup to deal with some of the intense suffering that goes on in the world.

That doesn’t mean sit it out and do nothing, McCarthy says. The rest of us can find plenty of ways to help, such as through donations or volunteering for duties that are more in line with our expertise or capabilities.

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