The Cost of Caring
Caring for those around you, and even those that aren’t, is an admirable trait. To have empathy is to try understanding other people, to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Sometimes it takes a little effort, sometimes it comes as naturally as breathing. Whichever the case, it is a step forward in your growth as an individual. All in all, a decidedly positive characteristic. But just like any other endeavour, compassion takes energy. We can’t keep it running indefinitely, day-in, day-out, without pause. And we certainly can’t stretch it as thin as we often believe we must. There’s a burden that steadily makes itself known the longer we push ourselves past our limits.
This is referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’, also known as ‘secondary traumatic stress disorder’ (STSD). It essentially consists of the emotional and physical exhaustion from being exposed to others’ trauma. Initially, it was most commonly observed in certain professions or positions, such as healthcare workers, paramedics, therapists, advocates for domestic abuse victims, or moderators of explicit or offensive online content. These occupations are all exposed to a high volume of others’ trauma.
When we watch or read the news, what do we see? Problems. Everything from a local accident, to the state of the country’s economy, to climate change — it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the swathes of bad news we hear from around the world. In the modern age of information, there are a plethora of issues to be passionate about, be it in your immediate community or the entire world. So many issues, in fact, that it’s impossible. Social awareness is often considered a responsibility — and it is. But not to the point that you run yourself ragged. Not at the cost of your own wellbeing. If you find yourself at your wits’ end thinking about the state of the world, you are allowed to disconnect for some time. Take a break; the weight of the world does not lie on your shoulders.
Compassion fatigue doesn’t just apply to the macro issues. Sometimes it’s being there for our own friends and family that drain our batteries. A large part of maintaining relationships is the give and take, but in a misguided attempt to help others, we can often give more than we realise. When we offer more than we receive, the delicate but crucial balance of our wellbeing shifts. It opens up the path of emotional drain and saps our ability to withstand turmoil. An important thing to remember is to treat your exhaustion with the seriousness it deserves. It can be easy to brush it off as insignificant or even imagined — don’t. No one gets to decide what’s right for you except you. If you feel you’ve reached a point that wouldn’t be healthy to cross, then say so. Your friends’ problems, while no less important, are not your constant responsibility. You are well within your rights to explain your situation and your boundaries, and allow someone else to help them out.
The point here is to choose your battles. Be passionate about global issues! Be there for friends and family! Help where you can! But don’t push yourself to help when you’re incapable of it. The threads of your compassion can only be pulled in so many directions before they snap. Be kind to yourself and your limits, and show yourself the same consideration you would show to others.
 Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Toward a new understanding of the costs of caring.
 “Compassion Fatigue.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/compassion-fatigue.
 LaRocca, About the Author: Bob, et al. “Introduction to Social Awareness.” Transforming Education, 21 Jan. 2020, www.transformingeducation.org/introduction-to-social-awareness/.
Quote taken from Penny Reid, “Beard in Mind”.