What is Compassion Fatigue?

Nov 1, 2022 | 5 comments

I’d been in cross-cultural service for 25 years before I heard of compassion fatigue. It wasn’t a term that was used in my circles, so it’s no surprise I learned about it outside of that world. I was introduced to the term at a public school in Missouri when I attended a workshop called “Compassion Fatigue in Helping Professions.”  As the presenter shared about it with a group of teachers, everything seemed to connect to my cross-cultural life. She explained that compassion fatigue was a normal consequence of being in a helping profession and happened most often to empathetic people.

Two of my children work in helping professions, so I called them that night to find out if they knew the term. Of course, they did. Again, I wondered why this term was a part of the conversation for so many in the secular world, but was unknown to me.

After that workshop, I realized that I was susceptible to compassion fatigue in my cross-cultural work, and I didn’t even know it! Since that time, I’ve become somewhat obsessed with the subject. My hope is to bring the topic of compassion fatigue into our conversation as global workers and help us all move forward in a more healthy and realistic way.

Here are three definitions of compassion fatigue that I found in my research: 

—“Physical, emotional and spiritual fatigue that causes us not to feel or care.” (Central Missouri Community Action’s workshop on compassion fatigue, 2019)

—“A form of secondary traumatic stress that occurs as a result of helping or wanting to help those who are in need. It is the ‘cost of caring’ for others who are in physical or emotional pain.” (Good Therapy)

—“Compassion fatigue is a combination of burnout and secondary trauma. In classical burnout [cross-cultural workers] cope by withdrawing and becoming less compassionate; however, [cross-cultural workers] with compassion fatigue continue to give fully to their work. They often feel like they are being pulled irresistibly down by a whirlpool and they are powerless to stop. These people are viewed as incredibly dedicated and successful [workers] by others, but they often do not feel that way about themselves.” (Ronald Koteskey –use a vpn for this link if you are in a creative access country)

As a global worker, you likely experience a lot of secondary trauma. You see the impoverished streets. You hear the sad stories of others. You experience various emotions as an observer of the human condition. You may not realize that you are being affected by your surroundings or notice the weight you are carrying for others. Those burdens can’t be carried for long without them affecting your own well-being. 

That is where compassion fatigue starts to creep in. It’s possible that as people have told you their stories, you took their pain as your own and now you feel hopeless. On top of that, you may feel guilty for that. Objectively, you may dismiss your feelings of sadness because you haven’t experienced trauma firsthand. You may tell yourself not to worry so much about others. You may even reprimand yourself for your unchecked emotions. You know there is no reason for you to feel as bad as you do, so you suffer in silence and soldier on. 

As stated in the second definition, compassion fatigue can be “the cost of caring.” Since you care, you may unexpectedly pay a price for that. As compassion fatigue takes hold, your natural desire to care about others may be lessened or go away completely. Over time, those in cross-cultural work with compassion fatigue can go from being caring, compassionate servants to ones who are simply trying to muster up interest in others. If this happens to you, you may feel powerless to stop it. 

Think about the third definition. Have you seen that whirlpool scenario in your cross-cultural life? I know I have, and that is one of the main reasons I share on this topic with such urgency. I know what it feels like to say “yes” to more responsibilities out of a sense of obligation. I know what it is like to serve when my emotional tank is empty. I have seen coworkers who needed to slow down, but didn’t because they felt guilty. The signs of compassion fatigue were in full view, but I didn’t recognize them as such. Now that I do, I want to share what I’ve learned with anyone who wants to hear! My goal is to bring hope to those feeling the downward pull of the whirlpool in their cross-cultural work. I want all of us to be able to recognize its signs and know there are practical things we can do to prevent & manage its effects.

As you consider what you’ve read so far, I want to mention one more thing. In my research, it seems that compassion fatigue often happens just before burnout. As you ponder that, in the next installment in this special series, I’ll explain why compassion fatigue happens and share its common symptoms. 

The Trauma Training 101-104 was geared towards trauma in adults. Trauma Training 201 will equip you to understand and know how to respond to trauma that children experience. This workshop covers the basics of how trauma impacts a child and how you can be a part of a child’s healing. Get the workshop today on behalf of the children in your life.

Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash

Terri Harmon

Cross-Cultural Consultant in Education. Wife & Mother. Mentor. Teacher.




  1. Stephanie Gutierrez

    This is such an important topic! Understanding why we feel what we feel (or don’t feel!) is so helpful in normalizing our experience. It’s the first step in opening us up to seek help so that we can continue to serve well and also take care of ourselves!

    • Amy Young

      Stephanie, thanks for the solidarity that this is important :)!! Can’t wait for your podcast to be live!

  2. Nathan Conrod

    A few thoughts:

    – The fatigue can certainly be emotional, but it is often just plain old fatigue – feeling worn out when you feel like you haven’t really done all that much.
    – Personally, it’s the trying to decide how to help in a myriad of circumstances that weighs the heaviest. People coming to the door asking for help, trying to decide who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, knowing you can’t say “yes” to every request but that you can’t say “no” to every one either. The stress of trying to make these decisions while balancing the big picture as well as wanting the person in front of you to know you care… It makes me tired just thinking about it.
    – The process can cause spiritual fatigue as well. If you ask the Spirit for wisdom in how to handle an issue but still aren’t sure, you can start down a spiral of wondering about your spiritual maturity, relationship with God and your ability to ‘hear’ his voice. You also feel guilty when, instead of feeling grateful that someone who you traveled 1/2 way across the world and learned 2 languages to minister to shows up at your door, you feel dread and simply wonder “What do they want now?”.

    • Sean Christensen

      Thanks Nathan. Even though you and I have served in different continents, I could have written exactly the same thing and I’m still dealing with the fallout of compassion fatigue 7 months after leaving Haiti. One thing that has helped me is to look again at the Four Gospels to see how Jesus handled the constant pressures of people’s needs.

  3. Terri Harmon

    Nathan, thank you for your comments on this very real issue. I’m hopeful that as you continue reading the next three articles, that you will find hope and clarity. The fourth article will come out on Nov. 10th and addresses many of the things you’ve mentioned, especially thinking that compassion fatigue was a spiritual issue. The biggest revelation on this topic that I had was finding out that compassion fatigue was a normal byproduct of being in this type of work. It wasn’t a spiritual failure on my part and knowing that has made such a difference in my life. My hope is that you will see those connections, too and embrace the same type of freedom that I now experience in ministry. Take care, friend.


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