Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist who specializes in helping clients deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
Let me start by saying that this article is not about making you feel guilty for living with a chronic condition. Not at all. My purpose is to talk with you about compassion fatigue—how it happens and what you can do about it.
I often talk with family members of individuals living with chronic conditions. Here are some examples of what I hear from them:
“Out of nowhere, I’ll get this worried thought about my mom. It gets stuck in my mind and I can’t help feeling sad and scared. It wears me down.”
“It just makes me nuts when my wife slips up on taking her medicine. She acts like it’s no big deal. She doesn’t understand what it’s like to know you’re helpless to make someone else do what they need to do for themselves.”
“I know he’s feeling worse than he lets on. I can see it in his face even when he denies it. When this goes on for a few days, I am just emotionally worn out.”
As I always say, when one member of the family is living with a chronic condition, everyone in the house is also living with that condition. Virtually every aspect of daily life is affected. This can include finances, routines for getting chores done, what you prepare for meals—and how you communicate. As my examples illustrate, a lot of emotions come up. For you, of course, but also for your loved ones.
When family members are constantly feeling emotionally overwhelmed—whether sad, fearful, frustrated, or something else—this can be draining over time. And feeling constantly drained can lead to something called “compassion fatigue.”
Having compassion fatigue doesn’t mean that your family members love you any less, or that they don’t care about you. In fact, it’s just the opposite. They may care so much that they’re in danger of becoming emotionally exhausted.
Compassion fatigue can lead them to stress, which can make it difficult to function effectively at work or school. It can cause them to shut down emotionally, so that they go through the motions of supporting you as they always have, but it will be apparent that the labor of love is now a chore of love. Compassion fatigue can also lead to resentment which, in turn, leads to feeling guilty over feeling resentful.
Compassion fatigue is fixable
Again, your loved ones’ compassion fatigue isn’t anyone’s fault. Certainly not your fault. In fact, looking for somewhere to place blame is a waste of energy that could be better used to address the problem if it’s finding its way into your relationship with your family members.
Here’s how to cope with compassion fatigue at your house.
Be aware. The signs of compassion fatigue can be subtle. You may notice that a family member seems overly tired. Or seems less than enthusiastic about talking with you about your chronic condition, or weary when the subject comes up. He or she may also snap at you—followed by, most likely, an apology. Compassion fatigue may gradually build up over time. It may also emerge after an event caused by your chronic condition, such as a medical emergency or a protracted illness.
Try to have a conversation. If you suspect that a loved one is experiencing compassion fatigue, suggest that the two of you sit down together and have a talk. Be gentle but straightforward about your concerns and what you have observed: “I’m worried that you might be feeling kind of worn out from all you do to help me. Lately, I’ve noticed ____.” If the other person becomes defensive or goes into denial, make it clear that you aren’t trying to accuse them but, instead, you want to help. Don’t underestimate the power of the guilty feelings your loved one may have. You may need to attempt this conversation more than once before you make any progress.
Look for the causes. Think about the daily challenges and responsibilities associated with your chronic condition that may be at the root of your family member’s compassion fatigue. Is your loved one responsible for certain chores that may be taking a toll? Is it possible they are not getting enough “me time,” having to forego certain activities out of the need to be available to you? (Or, do they think they need to?) And, is the emotional toll—excessive worrying, for example—wearing them down? Ideally, a conversation with your loved one should help uncover the causes. But you may be able to talk to another family member who may have some insights. Beware of making assumptions about how someone else is feeling.
Look for solutions. Let me be clear that denying yourself the support you need is not an effective solution to a loved one’s compassion fatigue. In fact, this could lead to even more stress for your family member. But think about ways that you might be able to offload a loved one who you fear may be overburdened. Is there someone else who could help out with some of the daily chores? Could you be giving your loved one some gentle pushes to relax and have more fun? Also consider: Are you spreading out the emotional support rather than depending on one family member?
Don’t blame yourself. At the risk of being redundant, you didn’t choose to be diagnosed with a chronic condition. It happened. What’s important now is forging the way forward—for you and for loved ones. As a team.
You, your family members, and your chronic condition. Compassion fatigue is human. Keep your perspective. Keep talking. And look out for each other. We’re all in this together.
How have you and your loved ones dealt with compassion fatigue? Help others in our community by telling what worked (or what didn’t). Add your comment below.