Empathy fatigue the road to burnout?

In this episode I discuss the very real and very challenging reality of dealing with emotional fatigue whilst being a parent carer. 


Balance or Burnout


Episode 2 Transcript:

Hello friends!

How are you doing? It is the week before half term and I am frantically tidying and packing as we are preparing for a big move! It’s an exciting but intense time but very much needed! But if any of you can relate when tidying you seem to create more mess! Anyway in this second episode I wanted to talk about a time in my life that kick started my thinking about emotional fatigue.

For the longest while I was walking around with this almost shameful guilt because I was experiencing feelings of apathy towards others. Especially Towards People who were not on a similar journey as me or but also people on a similar parent carer journey as myself.

And as I experienced these occurrences I was conflicted as to why I had a sense of growing resentment and irritation.

This actually sent me into a spiral of negative thinking – of my situation, of others and consequently left me confused.

It was some years later that I coined it (or so I thought) that I thought I was experiencing empathy fatigue. 

I actually unable to talk about the bad experiences of others. Whenever I tried it would be met with a layer of apathy or cynicism. 

There would almost be an incredulous disregard at someone else’s struggle as it did not (I felt) amount to as much as my struggle. 

My pain was bigger. 

My worry more important. 

There’s less so and therefore less important. 

I reacted with emotionaless intellectuallisation – offering advice (as obviously I knew better!) and often didn’t engage with compassion or empathy. 

What was happening was slowly any tolerance for empathy was shifting into apathy. 

This shift from empathy to apathy

created an additional layer of mental isolation as I actually felt I could not talk to anyone about this because I felt so ashamed. and also because the people who were on a similar path would not take too kindly to knowing that I felt totally unconnected or affected about their situation. 

At the start of my journey of transformation I hadn’t realised that I was actually allowed to have this experience and feel all of these emotions. I had not given my self permission to acknowledge that I could feel a range of emotions from sadness, irritation, anger and resentment and that by having these thoughts did not actually make me a bad person. 

Had I realised this I would have avoided years of feeling the weight of shame. 

I am a massive advocate of developing ones emotional intelligence. Taking time to understand what and why something makes you think and feel the way it does. And I now know, that at the start of my reflective journey I had began unlocking some of the keys to my happiness just by starting the process of deep personal reflection.

As author, entrepreneur and speaker Rob Dalio says with his simple equation: pain + reflection = progression or change and that is exactly what happened. 

And so when I began writing and reflecting I began a shift in mindset and started viewing these times with less judgement, and more inquisitively.

I asked myself some questions…

Why was I experiencing these thoughts? 

What was happening to me at this time ?

How was I coping?

What defined being a bad person? 

And it was from the raising of my awareness that I could see how my own value systems, expectations and self care were all misaligned. How my protective defence mechanisms which were kicking in to prevent me from feeling pain – and were actually creating more psychological pain. 

I was not emotionally congruent. My thoughts, values and ability were in dissonance. This explains the chaos that I felt mentally.

In the latest blog on the website we discussed the fascinating subject of stress and how it can affects the brain, body and mind of a carer. As it outlines, when we are in a stressed state the parts of our brains that deals with logic actually shuts down and we cannot think , reason and logic effectively. And although I am speaking about empathy fatigue I think it is clear when we have these moments of “switching off” that these occurrences are definitely a precursor and powerful indication that a person is suffering from or slipping into chronic stress. 

I use the terms empathy fatigue, emotional fatigue or compassion fatigue interchangeably as I think they are one and the same thing. 

All are the inability to be able to absorb, process and respond to people or occurrences with a level of empathy which could be seen by your engagement, warmth or concern. 

Empathy is an action – you mentally put yourself in another’s position to align yourself to what they are talking about to try as best as you can to understand. That isn’t to say you are experiencing it yourself but you try to the best of your ability to align yourself and emotionally lend your mind and reactions to most appropriately support that person. Healthy care workers like doctors, nurses, counsellors, police all have to exhibit facites of this to cultivate trust from the other person. 

When we don’t offer empathy and instead show lack of engagement or apathy, distance, mistrust and a lack of connection with others ensues. 

Emotional fatigue or compassion fatigue can also be defined as “ carers stress syndrome” . It is explained as “physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.” 

Parent carers are a key group of people who are at particularly high risk of suffering from carers stress syndrome. With the very real possible reality that you could be caring for your child over the long term, beyond adolescence and potentially throughout adulthood, parent carers have a mountainous task of avoiding or navigating compassion fatigue.

When empathy turns to apathy?

I can recall around 5/6 years into my caring role taking my daughter to nursery and I would purposely take her in 10/15 minutes later just to avoid the other parents. I mentally could not take the conversations. They felt to me as if they were conversations focused on the challenges or questions of progress of my daughter – the enduring conversations didn’t come from a place of genuine interest but almost a comparison chart against their own child.

Are they talking?

Are they having therapy? Ah who with? How much? EHCP applications? Diagnosis questions. It went on and on and I could not muster up the enthusiasm to ask questions back. I did but I just did not care.

I had daily headaches. Chronic back pain and heart palpitations. I slept but woke in a state of alert several times a night- often sleeping on the floor next to my daughter. 

I was physically and emotionally spent. 

On a daily basis I was under a lot of pressure. Bouncing from therapy to hospital appointments several times a week on little to no sleep. I ate on the go exchanging meals for snacks and biscuits. Daily I put massive pressure on myself to attend therapy, appointments I had a hard enough time keeping up with my own daughters applications , appointments, therapies, doctors without the added questions. 

Maybe you can relate? Or see similarities in your own life? I was spent. And so I used avoidance tactics to literally avoid these conversations and people. 

There was no room left in me to feel empathy, sympathy or carry out acts of compassion for others. It often left me feeling numb and guilty. It made me feel like I was a bad person for not caring or doing for others. It made me feel like there was something wrong with me – as here was another person in a possibly similar situation and I didn’t wasn’t able to engage with genuine interest. 

These conversations would lead me to spiral. 

(Looking for therapies, activities, remedies, all in a bid to help my daughter not realising it was also my own defence mechanism of Intellectualisation which would ramp up. )And I was already fatigued. I couldn’t face Anymore.

Involving myself in these daily conversations which elicited these emotions was too heavy to bear and sucked me down a path of sadness and frustration and further apathy for other people. Friends, family anyone who potentially needed to tell me something of importance would be met with someone who was unable to actually communicate effectively or empathically. So I grew numb and sad. And felt even more alone. 

So what happen when we forget to take care of ourselves?

Some symptoms of being in a place of compassion fatigue are:




Carer burnout and compassion fatigue are sometimes spoken about interchangeably but I personally see them as two separate occurrences that can feed into one another. Burnout I see as the end result – the culmination of being unable to continuously function in a number of ways whether that be physically or mentally. Whereas emotional fatigue I see as a behaviour that is exhibited along the path towards burnout. 

Feeling emotionally switched off or unable to tap into enthusiasm, connection, understanding or care is a consequence of erosion of one’s capacity to take on anymore. If I had to describe it it’s like being in a ball pit and being smothered with balls and feeling overwhelmed, frustrated and tired from trying to get out- and another person comes and wants to add some more balls in – but I just can’t take anymore. I’ve had my fill. I’m maxed out. I need to get out. I need a break. I need less pressure. And balls! 

It was in these times I didn’t realise I had depleted my resilience store. I was running on empty. Resilience is the ability to cope under pressure. But the thing with resilience you need to keep it topped up.

If you think about it like a bucket or a cup that has little holes in it. The bucket or cup is always leaking – leaking away your ability to cope. But in order to keep it continuously topped up you need to replenish it with things that bring you joy, positivity, escapism, rest, relaxation. Doing more things that make you laugh, smile, get excited. Be engaged with different creative circumstances. Freeing your mind from the same repetitive worries. All of these things are activities to build your self care. Having opportunities to unplug from your caring role is crucial in enabling you to continue in your caring role! And I was doing none of those things.

This might go against some of your ideas around what a carer should do. It might evoke guilt to do something for yourself. But it is pivotal for long term success to decompress. If you don’t look after you – who will? 

During this time – this advice fell on deaf ears. I had no support to enable time to relax. I had no support to share the appointments and therapy. I had no support to take a night off to get a good nights sleep. It felt like an impossible situation. 

I would joke “i’ll sleep when I’m dead” because it felt like that would be the only time I’d truly stop. 

So I’m speaking to those parents who feel like it is impossible to change your current situation and I say to them – there is a way. Even if it is small. Having a long bath while they are at nursery. Going to sleep an hour earlier just to feel more rested. Having a special meal with your favourite playlist playing songs from the past. Watching a tv show from the past that made you laugh. 

If you can -also write 3things you did that day that was accomplished. Going to an appointment. Getting to nursery on time. Having breakfast, lunch and dinner and acknowledge yourself. Congratulate yourself. Recognise what you did. Celebrate the small wins. And if there were times you didn’t do so well maybe jot them down and reflect as to why.

Why were you not in a resourceful state? 

Was it really that bad? 

Ask yourself- Is this an opportunity to reassess this failure and turn it in to an opportunity to make tomorrow better? 

Unless you know already what gets you excited or what makes time just fly – take out some paper or your phone and write down some things that make you happy.

It could be a song, a film, a book, a hobby. Think of people who make you smile and laugh.

Think of people who could potentially assist you – perhaps not with your caring tasks but maybe you have a friend that 

What I’m trying to do is encourage you to purposely question and purposely acknowledge you and your strengths. Acknowledge and not hide from the perceived pain of not measuring up and instead use it as information to create a better way for the following days.

Each thing can be small. Small in size but big in surprise as they mount up to eventually representent a filled up bucket. 

Your resilience and responses is the one thing you can control and it takes skill to master it. And that skill can only be finely tuned by building your awareness.

You can’t build a house without the right tools and plan. And in the same way you can build your arsenal to fight for your mental survival without first taking stock, focusing in and pulling out things that can be shaped and moulded to change your life. 

So my friend I hope you’ve found this episode useful, I hope you can connect with my experience and very real reality of parenting a child with a disability and the challenge of becoming emotionally fatigued. I didn’t touch on the implications and impact of what this could do to your child and your relationship but perhaps we’ll leave that for another podcast! Let me know if this resonated? Or if you have found times you’ve been in a place of compassion fatigue – what did you do and how did you turn things around. Head over to the website to read the transcript and also leave your comments for others to read and maybe draw inspiration from.

Until next time.


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