A hallmark of the both the helping relationship and the role of the human service provider is our ability to enter into the other’s phenomenological field, experiencing their world as they do, sharing their feelings, and better understanding their world and self-views. This ability to experience deep empathy is both a gift and a potential risk. Sharing in the pain, the anxiety, the sadness, or the sense of hopelessness often presented by our clients can challenge our ability to balance professional objectivity and distance while at the same time truly walking with our client. For clinicians lost in the lived experience of their clients, the result can be quite destructive, leading to increased stress and an inability to continue to feel and convey the compas- sion so characteristic of the helping professions.
Compassion fatigue has been defined as a “state of exhaustion and dysfunction—biologically, psychologically, and socially—as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress. Compassion fatigue differs from burnout in that it occurs suddenly, rather than gradually as is the case with burnout, and presents often with symptoms that mirror post-traumatic disorders. As such, it is often referred to as secondary post-traumatic stress disorder.
The impact of compassion fatigue is both broad and deep. Compassion fatigue can result in mental fatigue and an inability to concentrate, a deterio- ration of one’s ability to work effectively, a change in a person’s fundamental values and beliefs, and an increase in feelings of sadness, anxiety, and guilt. In addition, for some, compassion fatigue results in excessive emotional numbing and, like those with post-traumatic stress syndrome, the experience of intrusive images and thoughts of their cli- ent’s traumatic material. This experience can reduce the clinician’s ability to empathically engage with a client and thus presents a very real threat to one’s ability to provide competent, ethical service.