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Compassion Fatigue in Toxic Relationships

Updated on July 25, 2019
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The Little Shaman is a spiritual coach & specialist in cluster B personality disorders, with a popular YouTube show and clients worldwide.

Compassion fatigue is very common among those dealing with narcissistic people.

Compassion is basically sympathy. It's caring about the pain about those around you. It's part of what makes living together as human beings possible. Without compassion, no one would help each other, no one would care if others are hurt or suffering... It's necessary to live in a society together but more than that, it's natural for most people. When we hear a story about suffering, most people feel compassion. Empathy enables us to understand how the other person must feel and we react accordingly with shock, horror, sympathy and grief.

Fatigue means to be tired or exhausted. Put simply, compassion fatigue means that your sympathy well has been exhausted. It's empty or very low, and because of that, you might find yourself reacting with indifference or even anger to someone's pleas for rescue, sympathy or help - especially if they are someone who has done so repeatedly.

For some perspective, compassion fatigue is often seen in those who are in the helping professions, such as nursing or medicine. They can become so depleted due to the frequency or magnitude of suffering they are confronted with that they become indifferent or even cold toward their patients. This doesn't mean they don't care. It means that they are burned out; their sympathy well has run dry from overuse and they cannot react the way they once did anymore. Compassion fatigue is especially dangerous for those in this field not just because it can result in legal and ethical problems, but because it can impact the standard and level of care they are providing.

Compassion fatigue is not a lack of empathy. On the contrary, it is an absolute indicator that empathy exists within this person. Someone with compassion fatigue may even feel guilty or ashamed because they don't seem to care as much anymore, whereas a person with no empathy generally does not realize they should care at all and they certainly would not feel guilty that they don't.

When you are dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, you may find that over time, you cannot react the way you used to react to their hysteria, crises and the catastrophes they manage to create. You may or may not still help them, but you will often find that you are becoming indifferent to or resentful of the suffering and pain that they present you with. The suffering of pathologically narcissistic people is usually genuine. They are miserable, frightened, self-loathing and unhappy. People can usually see that and they may overextend themselves continuously trying to help. However, there is nothing you can do for pathologically narcissistic people except present yourself as a target for abuse they can use to take some of the heat off themselves. That's all they will allow you to do. You must learn to have sympathy and empathy for toxic people without feeling that it is your responsibility to fix them or their problems. Compassion should not result in yourself being harmed, and you cannot help somebody who will not help themselves.

Trying to help narcissistic people is like walking beside a lake and suddenly you see someone drowning. They scream and plead for help, so you jump in and save them. All the way to the shore, they thank you profusely and declare how wonderful you are. As soon as you deposit them on dry land, they punch you in the face, scream at you for daring to interfere, then jump back into the water. After a few seconds, they begin screaming and begging for you to save them again. You jump back in - it's an emergency! - and the whole thing repeats itself- over and over and over. This is not healthy, and it is what causes compassion fatigue in these relationships. There are too many emergencies.

Dealing with narcissists, you may also find that not only do you not react emotionally the way that you used to, but that your body does not react the way it used to, either. Where your heart used to pound and your hands would shake and your adrenaline used to race, this no longer happens. Now all that happens is that you are tired from swimming out to save them. This is sometimes known as adrenal fatigue and it happens for the same reason as compassion fatigue: your body has been under so much stress for so long that it simply cannot react the way it used to anymore. It's burned out. Adrenal fatiue and compassion fatigue can occur together in situations where you are dealing with narcissistic people because they are often abusive and high-conflict personalities but they are also people who provoke a lot of sympathy and often seem to require a lot of care. Indeed you may feel more like a parent, nurse or other type of caregiver to this person rather than what you actually are - be that their child, parent, spouse, friend...

It is this unique blend of total exhaustion that people dealing with narcissists usually encounter eventually. Their bodies are tired, their minds are tired and their emotions have been burned out. Compassion fatigue often only extends to the person that has depleted you - at least at first - but it can also affect all of your compassion and sympathy for everybody. Over time, it undoubtedly will. The key is to recognize that it is happening and take steps to protect yourself.

Guilt can be a complicating factor of compassion fatigue as well. People can feel guilty that they no longer react the same way they used to. They can feel ashamed, like they are a bad person for not caring anymore. They can feel afraid this means they are becoming like the narcissistic person, with no empathy and no compassion. Don't worry. Empathy doesn't just "go away." You still have it. It's just that your sympathy and compassion have been used too much, too often.

For example, if you are dealing with someone who is constantly suicidal - as some narcissistic people are - then after a while, no matter how deeply you care or how completely you understand, you are eventually going to stop being as sympathetic as you once were. This isn't because you don't care and it isn't even because you are used to it. It's because you simply cannot function at that high level of stress and compassion all the time. You may still engage in the actions of supporting the person but you may not feel the same as you used to feel. You may not react physically as if it's an emergency anymore, or get as upset as you used to get. Eventually, you may not get upset at all if it goes on for years and years. Once again, this does not mean you don't care. It means that you've become overextended emotionally and you simply cannot react as you used to react. Your body literally can't do it anymore.

Narcissistic people - and others, honestly - may react badly to compassion fatigue. They don't realize or understand the emotional and physical burden that someone has been operating under. To them, if you don't get upset, it means you don't care. They may accuse someone of this outright, making any guilt or shame the person is feeling worse. A person might think to themselves, "Well, they are saying I don't care and I sure don't feel like I used to feel about it. Maybe I really DON'T care." All of the times that you reacted with emotion and urgency in the past don't matter to a narcissist and they are not mentioned. All that matters is now.

When you're dealing with a pathologically narcissistic person, your emotions are in the red zone all the time. All of them. Nobody can operate at that level forever. It just can't be done. Something has to give and eventually, it does.

Some signs you are experiencing compassion fatigue are:

  • chronic exhaustion, physical, mental emotional or all three
  • depersonalization of the person or people who are suffering
  • numbness or indifference to the suffering of others that is new or increasing
  • resenting or blaming others for their suffering, especially unfairly
  • a feeling that you used to care more than you do now
  • feeling that the person or people in pain control the relationship or you
  • being angry at yourself or hating yourself for not caring or avoiding the person/situation
  • insomnia, nightmares or other trouble sleeping
  • physical symptoms like headaches, weight loss or overeating

If you find that you are experiencing compassion fatigue, it's important to remember that it doesn't mean you don't care and that it's necessary to take care of yourself. Compassion fatigue is a sign that you are not doing that. You are overextending yourself and your body is sending you warning signs.

Here are some things you can do to help:

  • take a step back from the caregiver aspect of the relationship, at least emotionally
  • create strong emotional boundaries and enforce them
  • limit your exposure to traumatic or emergency situations (don't watch the news, etc.)
  • keep a journal
  • talk to friends or a counselor
  • build up parts of your life that you enjoy
  • gain some perspective about the situation and your involvement, especially emotionally
  • learn what your responsibilities are - and what they aren't
  • ground yourself daily with earthing, meditating, water immersion or some other form of grounding
  • step away from the situation or relationship completely if you need to

Remember, you can only do what you can do. We have a finite reserve of sympathy and compassion. It can and does get used up. If this happens, it needs to replenish itself. It can only do that if you are able to back off of the situation or relationship and take the time to do that. Even if you end the relationship and never see this person or these people again, you still need to do it. Have some compassion for yourself, too. Compassion fatigue can have serious ramifications on mental and emotional health if it is not addressed. Worse, it can eventually rob people of healthy compassion for others and that is something we definitely need more of in this world.

© 2019 The Little Shaman

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