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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 50 years

compassion fatigue

(1980’s | journalese?)

One way to sum up compassion fatigue is “from empathy to apathy.” That is, it results from exerting so much effort to care for others that one gets worn out and no longer has strength or patience to help. Some writers, in fact, prefer “empathy fatigue.” Another way is to think of it as a special case of burnout, although some would distinguish the two. And another: a stress disorder that you get from other people’s traumas rather than your own; “secondary traumatic stress” is another synonym.

If you Google “compassion fatigue,” you will get the impression that it is the sole province of health care workers — or more generally those whose job it is to help others — and properly considered at an individual level. That is, an exhausted and overworked nurse or caregiver is afflicted with it, and the patients bear the consequences. Originally, however, compassion fatigue occurred on a national level. The phrase appears first in LexisNexis in December 1980, thanks to Senator Alan Simpson, who was talking about allowing beleaguered foreigners to resettle in the U.S. Americans did not want to accommodate them, according to Simpson, because of “compassion fatigue.” As late as 2000, that was the primary connotation when the phrase occurred in the press. It is true that you don’t get national compassion fatigue without lots and lots of individuals with compassion fatigue. Yet the scale of the phenomenon is clearly different. In the first instance, you’re talking about, at most, direct effects on a few dozen people. In the second, it’s in the millions.

Senator Simpson may have given the phrase its final push into prominence, but it certainly predates his use of it. There is some on-line evidence that Norman Cousins, editor and leading light of the Saturday Review, invented the expression in the context of foreign aid. In medicine and psychology, Carla Joinson (1992) and C.R. Figley (1995) are often credited with steering the phrase into new fields. (Not only did Figley help popularize the term, he seems to have originated the idea of understanding it as a stress disorder.)

The treatment for personal compassion fatigue relies on two concepts that Lex Maniac has covered, self-care and me time. In order to refresh your empathy, it is necessary to take a break, meet your own needs, and do things because you want to do them, not because someone else is making you. Experts often advise that compassion fatigue results from an inadequate self-care regimen (yes, regimen), and me time is just one component of self-care. There is no cure for mass compassion fatigue, but when times are flush and we need lots of imported workers to keep things going, Americans may get more liberal about immigration.

I don’t think it’s gotten there yet, but “fatigue” is a suffix ripe for spreading. “Donor fatigue” is one example; it widens the field by linking fatigue with persons rather than qualities. Let’s widen it some more. Q. “Why were you late to the office?” A. “Commuting fatigue.” (A much larger problem now than a couple of years ago, or maybe it’s just more openly discussed.) Students might develop exam or term paper fatigue. Most of us have a bad case of politics fatigue these days. You name it, if you’re sick and tired of it, or have used it up, tack on “fatigue” et voilà! a fun new phrase is born.

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