Compassion Fatigue

I was talking to a friend the other day about some frustrations with fundraising. She mentioned that it seems that some people are no longer exercised or stirred up about various issues in the world, particularly those of us who are continuing to die at a rate of 115-116 people every day in the United States. We speculated that COVID-19 could be using up most of the available energy and funds, which is definitely resonating with me; at the same time, I also think we are seeing and will continue to see an increase in “Compassion Fatigue.”

Let’s start with the dictionary definition …

Definition of compassion fatigue

1 medical the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.

Unlike burnout, which is caused by everyday work stresses (dealing with insurance companies, making treatment choices), compassion fatigue results from taking on the emotional burden of a patient’s agony.— Tim Jarvis

2: apathy or indifference toward the suffering of others as the result of overexposure to tragic news stories and images and the subsequent appeals for assistance.

Several fundraising experts said the Las Vegas collection may trail other donation efforts for several reasons, including “compassion fatigue” … . “Compassion fatigue is a real thing. There have been so many things that happened this year,” [Sandy] Rees said. “But it does get overwhelming, and I think people start to tune out.”— David Montero

We human beings only have so much capacity for suffering, for the suffering of others, and the emotional toll that entering into suffering costs. Some have more capacity than others. So, what happens when a person reaches the end of their capacity? As the definition above states, apathy and indifference, some of the most painful things a human can experience emotionally from another person.

The opposite of love, after all is not hate, but indifference.

When another human being observes another in pain or is even directly asked to intervene, and they don’t, the first and likely most inevitable reaction is to take the lack of help personally. I also think expectations are part of why it’s often particularly difficult to reconcile personal feelings and differing reactions to the same circumstance. Imbalances of power a/k/a one person needing something from another may also exacerbate gaps of understanding.

Brings to mind the 1998 movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” where Tom Hanks is trying to convince Meg Ryan that his attempts to drive her independent bookstore out of business with the giant box store bookstore he opened right around the corner, “is not personal, just business.” Meg Ryan, playing Kathleen Kelly, retorts:

“I am so sick of that. All that means is that it wasn’t personal to you. But it was personal to me. It’s personal to a lot of people. … Whatever else anything is, it ought to begin by being personal.”

I think it’s easy to forget that we human beings are built for community and connection with each other. When that begins to break down, everyone loses. Those of us who are looking at the funds we need for metastatic cancer research being reallocated to the urgent issues of COVID-19 and the aftermath, are worried. Worried that our lives are not considered to be as important or as immediate.

So, what’s the remedy? What are we to do?

I can’t say that I have found THE answer; at the same time, here are some thoughts I’ve had about my experiences with compassion fatigue:

  1. Ask sparingly. Everyone is bombarded right now because so many people are struggling with things that weren’t as much of an issue previously. Consider that carefully and plan strategically. There are so many organizations that are struggling more than before COVID-19 and it’s hard to differentiate. It’s not easy.
  2. Show Gratitude. It’s important to remember that a $15.00 donation from one person may be the same level of generosity as $50.00 or $100.00 from someone else. Whatever the level, showing gratitude is always a good idea and in this age of so much electronic communication, handwritten notes are even more appreciated.
  3. Choose your language carefully. Asking for money is more of an art than a science. Finding the right persuasive language is super important so that you don’t under or over sell the need. I’ve learned the most by watching other people asking for money. If I feel compelled to give, then I take note of their methods.
  4. Don’t assume. I struggle with this at times, looking over communication and trying to read between the lines. Assuming anyone’s motives is a minefield and should also be avoided as much as possible.
  5. Ask lots of questions. Building on the previous recommendation, the only way not to assume or read between the lines is to ask questions. Empathy results from being able to walk a mile in another’s shoes and you can’t do that without information.

As to the emotional fall out when the people around you who are not able to help, that can be a much bigger deal. Being self-aware and checking in with yourself about how you are feeling is key in addition to having a trusted person in your life to be able to help evaluate your perspective. Additionally, being vulnerable with others in the same position can provide much needed commiseration.

Finally, don’t “should” on yourself. No one has this stuff completely figured out and the pressure to have it figured out is too much to carry needlessly. Be kind and gentle to others, but first to yourself.

20 thoughts on “Compassion Fatigue

  1. It was suggested to me that “Now everyone feels like you do…they have some level of fear that ‘it’ may end their life sooner than they had planned.” and I think this has a lot to do with why a lot of charities are now put on the backburner.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I’m experiencing a lot of this on my end. I have decided to gently push forward with some fundraising efforts and get what I get. Next week’s blog is one potential push. Your tips are much appreciated in framing my thoughts around what will be posted.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Two thoughts on this… part of the problem may be all the fakers and frauders that have ruined things. People may get scared and thus it takes more time and effort to make connections and build trust with donators.
    Also, sometimes I wonder if the number of people that need help these days outnumber the people who are able to help. When I was growing up I didn’t know that many people who didn’t live a more or less middle class life. These days it seems like every other person is struggling with hardships of various kinds or they are just getting by week to week. 😕

    Liked by 2 people

  4. This is slightly off-topic, but my understanding is that with regard to empathy and compassion, the current thinking is that empathy—the identification with the other person—is what causes fatigue and burnout. In contrast, compassion, the ability to recognize the need and help the person accordingly, enables more lasting attention. The good news is that fMRIs have shown the different areas of the brain that fire with each of these, and importantly, compassion can be taught. (If I mentioned this before, please forgive me; I was so fascinated that I wrote about it in a post on anger management.)

    Liked by 2 people

  5. The answer, to me, is simply committing the funds necessary for all medical and health initiatives to develop and maintain a vibrant human race and quality of life. That mandate would in itself generate the need for new education, new jobs, new industries, and, new hope. All the more reason to always vote, and vote for whomever it is one decides best fits those priorities. A dream, yes, but also a doable goal in my opinion.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s