Acknowledging Compassion Fatigue

The end of an academic year can bring on all the feels – good ones and not-so-good ones. Seeing our students succeed and graduate, reading (hopefully) exciting final projects, celebrating the year’s accomplishments are fun ways to wrap up and put a bow on the year. But at the same time, grading, justifying grades to students, navigating requests for an extension or extra credit can wear on us, especially if we’ve been teaching long enough to have seen and heard it all before.

I have been teaching undergraduates for 17 consecutive years as a professor and teacher of record when I was a graduate student. And I will fully admit that the longer I teach, the easier it is to forget just how much life is happening to my students behind the scenes that impacts how they interact with us. We get older, but our students stay the same age–exactly where they should be personally and developmentally. Often what I’m experiencing just comes down to good, old-fashioned compassion fatigue.

You have permission to feel compassion fatigue, acknowledge it, and and find ways to recharge.

Common in the caring disciplines like healthcare, teaching, and crisis work, compassion fatigue can build up and settle in when we regularly deal with other people’s emotional, physical, or societal pain. Compassion and empathy fatigue are colloquialisms used instead of the more academic secondary traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms include feeling burdened by others’ pain, sleeplessness, hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, physical and mental fatigue, among others. Here is a (non-diagnostic!!) self-test you can take to  see if you might be experiencing compassion fatigue. See the video below as well. (NOTE: these are also symptoms of depression and burnout, so see a mental health professional if these symptoms seem severe).

For the purpose of this post, I just want to define the term and link to some resources. And I want to acknowledge with you that this feeling is a real, valid, often unconscious reaction to working so closely with students. It’s OK to feel that fatigue, but recognize what it is too – a form of emotional exhaustion. As I’ve been told many times over the past two years, you are supposed to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others with theirs. Take time to refresh and recharge – whether it’s a week or a semester – you have permission to take care of yourself.

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