Compassion Fatigue


Stress, trauma, burnout and PTSD all affect more than just the designated “patient.” The people around them -- families, coven-mates, coworkers and friends, are all impacted. And so are those to whom hurting people turn for help, emphatically including the clergy of all religions. In the typical small and intimate Pagan group, the effect is amplified. We are, in some very real senses, clergy and family at the same time, and many of us are empaths to begin with. We share their pain.

Sometimes you’ve heard so much more than you can take in, especially when there’s nothing you can do to help make it better. The second-hand pain, compounded by a real sense of helplessness, becomes overwhelming. All you want to do is shut it out, any way you can. This is compassion fatigue.

There’s a lot written about compassion fatigue, but most of it is about professional helpers: counselors and therapists, doctors and nurses, even veterinarians. Those people all get to go home at the end of the day. They get weekends and holidays off. Yes, they take the memories of all that they saw and heard at work home with them, but they still have at least the possibility of creating some distance, taking a break.

That’s a luxury some of us don’t have. What if the hurting person is a member of your coven, grove or kindred? We share a close psychic bond in our intimate spiritual and magical groups. In many ways, that’s our glory, but it puts us even more at risk for compassion fatigue. What if the hurting person is your spouse or lover?

I’ve been searching the literature, and have been blessed with access to specialists in this field. They’ve been more than helpful. I’ve found some good resources for the families of newly-returning combat veterans,[1] and lots of material about compassion fatigue for professional helpers, but nothing for the wife worn down by grueling years of a wounded husband’s rehab, or by a husband’s long and hopeless illness. And, yes, I am talking about two real people, friends of mine. Concern for them sent me on this quest.

So, let’s take a look at what is known about compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue grows from three roots:

  • Many of us have old hurts of our own, and these are what make us tender. Shamanic traditions about the “wounded healer” are borne out by secular research. But if we have not fully faced, owned and worked through our own old griefs, they leave us vulnerable to the overwhelmingly painful emotions of our traumatized friends, especially when their experience is in any way similar to ours.
  • Secondary traumatization is a risk for those who care for people who have suffered through an overwhelming catastrophic event. If a traumatized person comes to you for support and for emotional first-aid, your own foundations may be rocked as well. Counselors who worked just off-site of the World Trade Center, helping rescue workers process their experiences, were very subject to secondary traumatization.
     The symptoms of secondary traumatization are much the same as those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: flashbacks or amnesia, hyperarousal and hypervigilance, avoidance of reminders, self-medication.
  • Burnout is not so dramatic. It is not keyed to one catastrophic event, but to a long series of sad or discouraging situations. Burnout is a wearing down process, in which people lose energy, idealism and hope. Burned out people may be helping a lot, but they can’t perceive it because their awareness of unmet need is so overwhelming.

So compassion fatigue is not about callousness, indifference or uncaring; it’s about people who care too much, who expect too much of themselves, who give more than they can afford to give until they can give no more.


As within, so without: compassion fatigue evokes the silencing response:

Compassion fatigue is a condition, an inner state. People with compassion fatigue come to fear what they will hear. They may avoid contact with those who are hurting, or numbly enact token connection when they cannot open themselves in truth.

Some people will continue long after they are used up, running on empty, perhaps because they feel expected or pressured to do so, or perhaps because they expect this of themselves. These have been described as overcopers.[2] But how long can anyone really run on empty?

Unresolved compassion fatigue, over time, evokes the “silencing response.”[3] This was first noticed shortly after World War Two. Many Holocaust survivors settled here, bringing their horrendous memories with them. People were appalled by the Holocaust, but felt that there was nothing they could have done even while it was going on. All the more so when it was over, in the late 1940s. That feeling of impotence was itself painful and aversive. So the refugees were effectively silenced. They lived out their lives with festering internal wounds. The long-term effects of this mass silencing are still playing out in later generations of the refugees’ families.

So, the silencing response comes down to “I can’t do anything about it, so I just don’t want to hear about it.” There are several different tactics people use to shut out the psychic pain.

  • They avoid the topic or change the subject.
  • They give pious canned answers, and imply that the hurting person simply lacks faith.
  • They belittle the person’s distress, or suggest that they should “just get over it.”
  • They are angry or sarcastic with people in pain.
  • They blame the victims.
  • They fake interest, are inattentive, or even visibly bored.
  • They openly doubt people’s stories.


Prevention and Healing:

Compassion fatigue can be understood as a distortion of consciousness, the false and hurtful notion that whatever is not perfect will never be any good at all. We push ourselves beyond our own capacities, draining or wounding ourselves, trying so hard to help, but it’s never enough. We cannot take away a loved one’s injury or illness, or erase their terrible memories completely. We cannot make things as they were before the traumatic event, so we come to feel that we have totally failed them. Then we further blame ourselves for even feeling bad, when we were not the primary victims. Eventually, we quit trying. When we shut ourselves down, we make things worse both for ourselves and for our hurting loved ones.

This painful spiral can be interrupted, and even reversed. Remember: magic is the art of changing consciousness in accordance with will. If your will is to be there, to be a support, for a family member or a coven-mate who is in pain, there are definite steps you can take. Here are some of them:

  • Name the demon: learn about stress and trauma – where they come from, how they work. Knowledge is power. The good secular resources for families of traumatized people will be equally useful to their spiritual families.
  • Clear your space: do you have any old, unresolved pain, any incomplete or unresolved grief of your own? Do what you can to name, face, process and release your own issues so that your loved one’s current issues do not become enmeshed with and amplify your old pain.
  • Gather your tools: to help a traumatized person, learn and practice the art of active listening. To help yourself, learn and practice the arts of relaxation: deep breathing, systematic muscle relaxation, meditation and affirmations. Find or create a place of peace, strength and safety in your own imaginal world. You probably have these skills already, from your magical practice. Remember that they apply to this apparently mundane situation just as well, because it, too, is really about consciousness.
  • Face the demon: identify what stresses you about the situation. Is it simply hearing horrific memories? Is it the feeling of powerlessness and frustration? Is it a sense of failure and defeat? Probably it’s all of these and more. Try to put them into some sort of order, an agenda of sorts, from the least stressful or painful to the most.

Then – and this is the hard part – starting with the easiest of these – imagine it as vividly as you can. Let yourself experience it as fully as possible: the anguish, the frustration. Then use your breathwork, muscle work, and other meditative techniques to restore your equanimity. Repeat this exercise till you can do it smoothly before moving to the next, more challenging item on your agenda.

  • Claim your strength: reassess your interactions with the traumatized person. Let yourself understand how you were helpful to them by simply giving them a chance to tell their story, in their own way and at their own pace, without either cutting them off or prying. Telling it to a good listener allowed them to make a bit of sense out of it, to see their own strength in an awful situation and to digest the lessons learned – and you, by your patient and supportive presence helped this to happen.
  • Affirm your own real contribution to your loved one’s recovery and healing. Compassion satisfaction is the very best antidote to compassion fatigue. If you recall some places where you might have done better, these are learning opportunities. You can build strength and skill for the next time. The lesson of the Wheel is that there will always be a next time: times to mourn and times to dance.
  • Also, remember the simple and obvious things. Don’t be an overcoper. If you are supporting someone who has been traumatized, you also need support. In the professional community, this is called supervision and peer support; we call it the Elders and the Circle. Allow others to share the burden, and allow them also to take some care of you. Keep up whatever spiritual or magical practices nurture your own inner life. Take the occasional break; you both need and deserve it.

May the good Gods grant us all abundant compassion vitality, to help one another through times of challenge and hardship!


To learn more:


  • Figley, Charles R. Compassion Fatigue: Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorders in Those Who Treat the Traumatized  NY: Brunner-Mazel, 1995.
  • Figley, Charles Treating Compassion Fatigue  NY: Brunner-Mazel, 2002.
  • Rothschild, Babette Help for the Helper: Self-Care Strategies for Managing Burnout and Stress NY: Norton, 2006
  • Saakvitne, Karen W and Laurie Ann Pearlman Transforming the Pain: a Workbook on Vicarious Traumatization NY: Norton, 1996


Web Sites:

  •  Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project


  • Croucher, Rowland “Stress and Burnout in Ministry”

< > Very Christian essay, but well worth the work of translation.