In the spring of 2018, I attended my first mental health conference at Queen’s University led by their Jack.org chapter. At the time, I was grieving the recent suicide of my best friend and starting to become passionate about mental health advocacy. After a few group workshops and presentations, one keynote speaker came on stage to talk to us about “compassion fatigue”- two words that instantly changed my life.
Compassion fatigue is also known as the “cost of caring”, or more specifically the fatigue that can arise when caring for another person’s health. It’s important to think of preventing compassion fatigue as a form of self-care because it can negatively impact every aspect of your life.
Learning about compassion fatigue gave me the validation I never knew I needed. At the time, I was grieving the loss of my friend while simultaneously learning how to adjust to the change in my daily routine which had previously been preoccupied with taking care of my friend. Weeks after the death of my friend, I attended trauma and crisis therapy to help me process her passing. After some time talking with my therapist and exploring my growing awareness that I no longer felt the same mental exhaustion, I realized that compassion fatigue had completely consumed me. Additionally, I quickly noticed that I hadn’t just lost my best friend, but I had also lost a large part of my own identity- the role of a caregiver.
For many years, I felt guilty creating boundaries with my best friend as I felt that it was my duty to be there for her no matter what. The guilt would grow whenever my own mental health was being impacted as I did not want to act selfishly when I thought she needed me more than I needed some space for myself. However, I have since learned that before you offer to fill up someone else’s bucket, you need to make sure that there’s enough water in your own. You can thank my therapist for that metaphor (I sure have).
Compassion fatigue. The cost of caring. You care so much and feel compelled to do everything you can until you physically or mentally cannot give anymore. You give until you are fatigued and continue until you are completely drained. Empty. There were countless times when I struggled to fill the role that I had unintentionally created for myself. I felt badly going out and getting drinks with friends because I knew I would not be able to properly support her when she would call me later that night. I felt guilty taking a night for myself. This became my new identity.
When I later mourned her death, I also grieved a part of my own identity. As a caregiver, putting her first was my sole focus. For hours a day, my mind would run tirelessly over what I could do to better help her. My thoughts were filled with new ways to check in, fun activities for us to enjoy together, and resources to send her. While she did seek treatment a few times, she typically stopped because she didn’t see the results as quickly as she would have liked. My role was to lift her up and encourage her to continue trying. However, I subconsciously stopped doing things I enjoyed like photography and working out because my attention became completely concentrated on her wellbeing. For a 15-year-old girl, this job description was definitely out of my league.
One of the main reasons I struggled in caring for her was that I didn’t have words to describe what I was feeling when I imagined reaching out for support. If I couldn’t verbalize my problem, maybe it wasn’t a problem at all, right? Wrong. To make matters worse, when I finally did reach out to friends for support, they would tell me that I needed to create boundaries; something which is far easier said than done. How do you tell your best friend that you can’t help her? How do you take that step back?
For me, hearing the words “compassion fatigue” at the conference three years ago was my “AHA” moment. I finally had the words I had been searching for in order to explain what I was feeling. Looking back, I wish I had known that others were struggling with the same problem that I was facing – burnout from caring too much. Out loud it almost seems silly; how can caring too much be bad? Reflecting on where I was then, I was so anxious about her wellbeing that it began to impact my own. When I couldn’t bring her happiness, my self-esteem would go down and my anxiety would rise. When she spoke negatively about her weight and appearance, my thoughts became destructive as well. Thinking about how I silently struggled so I could put her first brings me close to tears. I wish I had set time aside to mentally check in with myself and make sure that I was doing things that promoted my own growth and happiness.
Putting myself first is a work in progress – three years later I’m still learning how to make myself a priority. It’s not easy and for most of us, it doesn’t come naturally; we’re givers, we like to help others out when they’re down. However, when caring for another starts to consume you, you need to prioritize your mental health, to make sure your bucket is being kept full and boundaries are being set.
Unfortunately, most of us cannot safely help an individual to the extent that they may require. Knowing when to step back and refer them to a community resource will help both you and your friend – even if at the time, it feels like the last thing you want to do. I know how difficult it is when a loved one confides in you and expects you not to expose their struggles, but a professional in the mental health field will know more about resources, treatment options, and coping mechanisms.
If you’re not sure how to bring up the conversation, Jack.org’s Be There toolkit provides scripts and scenarios. They have taught me how to reach out to a friend and express my concern while maintaining proper boundaries. I wish I had known about this toolkit years ago as I would have been more honest with my friend about what I was able to help with and more honest with myself about when I needed to fill my own bucket.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, together we can create a stronger and more resilient community.
Jessica is a recent psychology graduate of Queen’s University. Jessica has been involved in mental health advocacy for over seven years and is currently sitting on the Eli’s Place Peer Advisory Board. She enjoys speaking openly about her experiences, promoting community-based resources, and playing with her two dogs.