The Suffering of Compassionate People

Our culture holds compassionate people in high regard. The kind teacher who helps a struggling student, the Emergency Medical Responders who rescue accident and trauma victims, Police men and women who routinely encounter human cruelty, trauma and violence. Nurses, physicians, caregivers, mental health professionals and volunteers are also some of the uniquely compassionate people who through helping others are regrettably prone to hindering their own health and wellbeing.

Researchers Richard Adams, Charles Figley and Joseph Boscarino who studied 236 social workers living in New York City 20 months following the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center found that ‘compassion fatigue’ was a risk factor for social workers counseling traumatized clients and was associated with the professionals’ psychological problems.

Jennifer Day and Ruth Anderson who studied “Compassion Fatigue of Caregivers of Family Members with Dementia” found that in addition to apathy, depression and anxiety experienced by professional caregivers, “Dementia caregivers also experience stress and compassion fatigue.” They added, “A relationship with an emotional attachment may affect the way the caregivers perceive their loved one’s suffering which influences the amount of empathy that the caregivers feel.”

They added, “Compassion fatigue may lead caregivers to experience a high level of Hopelessness, Helplessness, Apathy, Emotional Disengagement or Isolation. Informal caregivers of family members with dementia who develop compassion fatigue may suffer depression, burden, caregiver strain, and a decreased relationship quality with the care recipient. Conversely, family caregivers who accept the limits of anticipated improvements are better able to view the care they provide as beneficial and elevate the care recipients’ mood and momentary pleasures.”

Caregivers often seek to receive satisfaction through moment-to-moment comfort of the care-receiver and even small improvements that affirm their value. When these expectations are unmet, some caregivers feel defeated or disappointed in themselves. Caregiving is about providing present pleasures, not about hopes for long-terms changes.

Perhaps the interpersonal connection and momentary minor pleasures should become the goal of caregivers that will reduce their compassion disappointments. Accepting the care receiver’s limitations may actually free the caregiver to accept the small pleasures as great rewards.

Compassionate caregivers may be better served if they were able to be realistic about their patients’ expectations and goals. Maintaining a routine of familiar activities, which the patient enjoys and receiving the one-to-one attention may actually be pleasing and very satisfying to the care receiver.

To best serve their patients or family members, caregivers may choose to focus on small accomplishments, comfort, laughter, emotional bonding and familiarity as true successes, rather than seeking actual regression of the disease process as a goal.

Suffering or pleasure is based on expectations. Creating pleasant moments elevates both the caregiver and the care receiver’s moods, provides safe bonding and heals both

To reduce compassion fatigue:

  • Understand that caregiving is healing through attention, caring and love.
  • Consider the moment-to-moment connection with the care receiver as profoundly beneficial to you both.
  • Reduce your angst by valuing yourself for the “saintly” care you do provide.



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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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