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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Blurring the Definition of Compassion Fatigue

By Katherine Dobbs, RVT, CVPM, PHR


One of the topics I am most passionate about discussing is compassion fatigue, no pun intended. I even have a Google alert set for “compassion fatigue” so I can see new information as soon as it hits the internet. It’s been interesting, and a little frustrating, to see how the definition of compassion fatigue can be twisted and turned around. Lately, there have been many people talking about “compassion fatigue” in regards to aid for Haiti and Chile. The point of the articles are to not let compassion fatigue stand in the way of offering help (in the form of monetary donations) to those in need. Yet, from what I understand of compassion fatigue, the only people experiencing compassion fatigue in the truest sense of the word are those people over in Haiti and Chile actually performing acts of heroism and offering aid in person. Those of us sitting on our couches or scrolling through slide shows of photos at work, even if we do send money overseas, are not at ground zero helping those who suffer. That is where compassion fatigue lives, where helpers are exposed to the drama and trauma of real life suffering.

Today was even more surprising, as I received a Google alert that pointed me to an article about people who cheat on their spouses. It stated that “the unfaithful spouse, despite the guilt and shame, feels compassion fatigue and wants to put it in the past and get on with their lives.”

Wow, it’s difficult to even think of these unfaithful spouses as people who deserve compassion, much less people that are suffering from compassion fatigue. So, when you’re exploring compassion fatigue for your own self-help, be wise about what you read and how compassion fatigue is defined. You want to focus on compassion fatigue that is geared toward care givers, because that is truly what you are in this profession, helping animals who suffer and pet owners who have been exposed to difficult, if not traumatic circumstances.

Another type of confusion comes from the similarities between compassion fatigue and burnout. Most of us have heard of burnout, and can admit that we feel burned out much of the time. There are those people who feel that burnout is a type of compassion fatigue, and vice versa. However, there are others who believe there are some definite differences between the two. I can appreciate this comparison of the two terms, which comes from a “human” medical doctor: “burnout results from stresses that arise from the clinician’s interaction with the work environment, while compassion fatigue evolves specifically from the relationship between the clinician and the patient.” (Kearney et. al., 209) To me, this makes the most sense, and identifies what I personally have experienced. While it is easier to admit that we are “burned out” because it seems to be something done TO us, it is more difficult to admit that our compassion is simply tired because of the care giving we do for a living. Yet it is the most noble of professions that provide care giving, and we would not experience compassion fatigue if we were not compassionate people to begin with. This is what our patients and clients need, those who are passionate about helping them. But remember to take care of yourself along the way.


For more resources and to learn more about compassion fatigue, visit

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