Lori looked down at her shaking hands. The tears slipped down her cheeks. “I feel so guilty about this,” she whispered. “But I’m just too tired to handle my daughter’s eating disorder anymore.”
My heart opened up to Lori. She clearly felt guilty – maybe even ashamed of herself. But of course she was tired! In fact, I would expect her to be tired, irritated, and exhausted. Having a child in a mental health crisis is incredibly difficult, and almost all parents find themselves overwhelmed and burnt out at some point. This is due to something called compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a condition characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion leading to a diminished ability to empathize or feel compassion for others, often described as the negative cost of caring. It is sometimes referred to as secondary traumatic stress.Wikipedia
Lori’s fatigue makes sense. Her daughter has been hospitalized twice, and the whole family has been on high alert for over two years now. The constant strain and stress over the eating disorder have created the perfect conditions for compassion fatigue.
“I mean, I haven’t even been able to let her go to the bathroom by herself,” said Lori. “I’ve taken a leave of absence from work and have to monitor every meal and snack. I get almost no breaks.”
One of the things Lori is going to try to help her daughter get into recovery is to work on emotional regulation and validation of her daughter. But it will be very hard for Lori to succeed in either of these endeavors when she has active compassion fatigue. So our work needs to begin by addressing how hard this is for Lori and try to build up some strength before she takes on the emotional labor of supporting her daughter. That’s right: for Lori to help her daughter with her eating disorder, she must work on her compassion fatigue.
Parents with compassion fatigue + an eating disorder
Compassion fatigue is the bone-deep exhaustion that comes with caring for another person, especially if they have a mental or physical health condition. It’s commonly found in healthcare workers, care providers, and, of course, parents.
Compassion fatigue is something that most parents probably have a little bit of every single day. Our consistent care for the people in our families combined with paid work, volunteer work, and housework is typically already at the maximum level even without extenuating circumstances.
Parents managing a family member with a condition like anxiety, depression, and/or an eating disorder can find themselves overwhelmed with their loved ones’ needs. In these cases, if parents don’t take intentional action to care for their needs, they may experience compassion fatigue.
And make no mistake: having compassion fatigue when your child has an eating disorder will make things harder. There is no benefit to having compassion fatigue. And recovering from compassion fatigue will help you be more effective in helping your child with an eating disorder.
Symptoms of Compassion Fatigue
Compassion fatigue can cause symptoms that can significantly impact our ability to enjoy life and make it harder to care for our loved ones. Symptoms include:
- Blaming of other people both in and outside of your family
- A deep sense of being isolated and overwhelmed
- Increased behavioral addictions like drinking, overspending, and disordered eating
- Not caring for your hygiene and nutrition (e.g. showering, brushing hair, brushing teeth, eating regularly)
- Chronic physical ailments like back pain, recurrent colds, and gastrointestinal problems
- Recurring nightmares, difficulty sleeping, and a sense that you can never get enough sleep
- Mentally and physically tired and apathetic
- Activities that you once enjoyed are no longer interesting
- Difficulty concentrating
- Increased risk of anxiety, depression, and associated conditions
Care for yourself, too
It may seem impossible to imagine not giving all of ourselves to the people we love. But the fact is that if we fail to take care of ourselves as well, many of us will show symptoms of compassion fatigue. Since many of us don’t want to set boundaries and say “no” when things become too much for us, Compassion Fatigue is a way that our bodies step in and say “no” on our behalf.
Because as much as we want to do everything for everyone we love, we can’t pour from an empty cup. We simply must find a way to fill ourselves and meet our own needs to provide the care our loved ones need from us.
I know – your attention is already overwhelmed by managing a child who needs extra care on top of the everyday management of your family, and imagining having any additional attention to give to yourself seems ridiculous.
Here is a printable I created to help you spot the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue:
How to fit it all in
If you’re like most parents who have compassion fatigue, you probably feel you have no option. It probably seems like you have to keep doing everything you’re doing or everything will fall apart. I know this seems essential, but think of what we’re taught on the airplane. You cannot save anyone else if you don’t put on your oxygen mask first. Putting everyone’s needs before your own is a sure recipe for compassion fatigue. And the fact is that you will not be as effective at supporting your child’s needs if you have compassion fatigue.
For Lori, there are several things, including emotional co-regulation and validation, that will help her daughter recover from an eating disorder. But Lori can’t do these things until she has recovered from her compassion fatigue.
Your self-care must be at least as important as your child’s care. If you can’t imagine how this can be possible, then please get some support from a therapist or coach. Here are a few things they will likely have you get started with:
- Separate what you can reasonably do from what you cannot do
- Attend to your own essential needs (sleep, food, connection, etc.) before caring for others
- Delegate tasks to others where possible
- Relieve yourself of taking all the responsibility
If this sounds impossible, I understand! Please find a therapist or coach to help you determine the best way to juggle everything on your plate without sacrificing yourself.
Ginny Jones is on a mission to empower parents to raise kids who are free from eating issues, body shame and eating disorders.
She’s the founder of More-Love.org and a Parent Coach who helps parents navigate disordered eating, eating disorder recovery, and other challenging emotional and behavioral issues.