Counseling Advice: Empathy and Compassion Fatigue

Empathy and Compassion Fatigue, the first time I heard these words spoken I immediately said, “ I have that”. It was a relief to finally have a name to describe the symptoms I was feeling. I kept thinking that something was wrong with me, but I was actually feeling the sadness, fear, anxiety, worry and pain of those I was helping. Initially I felt relieved, however that feeling was short lived as I felt frustration mounting because I wondered why I had not heard of these conditions before. Why was this not a class in my masters program or at least something talked more in depth about then the general importance of self-care? When I reflect back on all the experiences I have had as an intern working with court ordered male sex offenders, women survivors of sexual abuse and assault, and the many traumatic experiences I have heard and witnessed as a field based clinician helping children in intensive services, I feel comfort knowing that empathy and compassion fatigue are felt by many therapists and individuals in the helping profession. It’s not just me!

Compassion and empathy fatigue are often described as the emotional strain that an individual experiences who has been exposed to working with others who have suffered severe trauma. Empathy and compassion fatigue don’t just affect people working in the helping profession. However, a lot of literature states that nurses, psychologists, and first responders are common individuals to experience this type of fatigue.  I believe anyone who cares for another individual can feel emotional, physical, and mental fatigue from it. Empathy and compassion fatigue also relates very closely to vicarious posttraumatic stress disorders in that they all encompass our bodies response to being exposed to another persons suffering or trauma. These internal symptoms can show up in various ways for different people. I have experienced anger, anxiety, increased exhaustion, headaches, sadness, dizzy spells, nausea, and depression just to name a few.

When we begin to experience mental, physical, and emotional symptoms due to our profession, it is very important that we take care of ourselves. Engaging in self-care is of utmost importance for individuals working in the helping profession. Self-care is something I engage regularly and feel very passionate about as it directly impacts my ability to be healthy in my professional role as a therapist. It is also important that clinicians engage in supervision, consultation with colleagues, and are able to process the experiences they have with clients.

CompassionI believe more often then not that therapists are impacted by the client’s they work with. Many times we are impacted in positive ways that cause us to gain insight into other’s lives, ourselves, and the world at large. There are also times that we encounter a lot of trauma, tragedy, and sadness in the therapy room. When you listen, empathize, assist clients in processing their experiences and help individuals manage their mental health symptoms, you are without a doubt impacted on some level. Therapy is one of the most special professional relationships in that individuals often share their authentic REAL selves in the therapy room. I see it as an honor to be able to share in that vulnerability with another human being.

It is fair to assume that all therapists take on and are impacted by the professional work they do. By acknowledging and accepting this reality, you can then begin to work on and manage your own overall health in relationship to your working profession. As therapists, our ability to care for others while knowing that it directly impacts us on both a professional and personal level is not only a beautiful thing, its an essential awareness we must all have.

Amy McNamara, LMFT

Amy McNamara is a licensed marriage family therapist living and working in southern California and has been practicing therapy for 5 years. Amy has a private practice in Redondo Beach, California and also works part time for a government funded mental health agency. She's a relationship expert and has extensive experience working with children and teens with a wide variety of mental health disorders. Amy's a graduate of Humboldt State University and received her Master's Degree in counseling at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. For more information about her practice, please visit her online.
Amy McNamara, LMFT

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