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Compassion fatigue is sign of caregiver burnout, Self says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Being a caregiver himself, Barney Self, a licensed family and marriage therapist and LeaderCare counselor for LifeWay Christian Resources, knows the causes and symptoms of a malady he calls “compassion fatigue.”

Generally, it is caused when one has become so involved in providing care to others that they become emotionally and spiritually exhausted, he said.

“A caregiver is always at risk of compassion fatigue,” he said. “For everybody who does caregiving, there is a threat of burning out. Our only protection is our willingness to be honest with ourselves about what our level of health is.”

Self, who maintains a private counseling practice, said one way he handles potential burnout is by refusing to counsel people on Fridays or weekends, unless it is a dire emergency.

“If I get a call on the help line and someone says they have a problem, but it can wait until Monday, then I usually don’t call them until Monday. But if they don’t give an option, I’ll call back as soon as I can.”

Saying he also avoids movies, Self noted, “I can’t get all wrapped up in the emotions of movies. I have to save my compassion for real situations.”

Maintaining healthy friendships and keeping an open line of communication with his wife are other ways he seeks to avoid compassion fatigue.

“I maintain an open awareness with my wife on where I am. Self-awareness is really huge, especially for us weird therapist types.”

While Self said he sometimes cries when he hears the pain of others, he acknowledges he can be no help to them if he is overwhelmed by their circumstances.

“You can’t hear other people’s pain without being affected by it. If you aren’t affected, that’s a true sign of compassion fatigue.

“But if I’m overwhelmed and distracted because of a loss in my own life, then I’m of no help to them. I need to take a break and deal with my own issues.”

Symptoms of compassion fatigue, Self said, include:


  • Fatigue
  • Physical depletion/exhaustion
  • Sleep difficulties
  • Somatic problems (headaches, colds, flu, ulcers)


  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Guilt


  • Aggression
  • Callousness
  • Pessimism
  • Defensiveness
  • Cynicism


  • Quitting the job
  • Poor work performance
  • Absenteeism
  • Tardiness


  • Perfunctory communication with others
  • Inability to concentrate on relationships
  • Withdrawal from church members and/or co-workers
  • Dehumanizing others

Self challenges ministers to “do healthy things for themselves.” He furnishes a list of depleters and replinishers:

  • Caffeine
  • Processed sugar/white flour-based foods
  • Eating for comfort
  • Alcohol
  • Pornography
  • Isolation
  • Avoidance
  • Sexual acting out (affairs — internet or physical)
  • Eating on the run or alone
  • Compulsive buying
  • Gambling
  • Lethargy
  • Workaholism
  • Distance from friends
  • Nicotine


  • Storytelling
  • Hearing others healing stories
  • Music (appropriate types)
  • Hearing stories outside the caregiving realm
  • Meditation
  • Guided imagery
  • Massage
  • Journaling
  • Exercise
  • Healthy diet
  • Couple relationship time
  • Positive Hobbies
  • Spiritual growth — prayer/Bible study
  • Accountability
  • Connectedness with healthy friends (koinonia)


    About the Author

  • Terri Lackey