How to Avoid Compassion Exhaustion

Gia Duke July 24, 2019

In December 1999, Julia “Butterfly” Hill’s feet hit the ground for the first time in 738 days. Many of us who consider ourselves change-makers know the story well.

What began as a weeklong sit-in to protect a 1,000-year-old redwood tree near Stafford, California, became her residence for two years as she and a group of activists from Earth First! protested deforestation.

People often wonder how she did it. What does 738 days in a tree do to one’s compassion for our planet and forests, one’s resolve, and one’s sense of self?

In her book “The Legacy of Luna: The Story of a Tree, a Woman and The Struggle to Save the Redwoods,” Hill comments on her lowest moments. “Each time I’d start to feel that the fire inside me was just too weak to burn any longer and that I couldn’t face another day, the great spirits of the universe would send something to fan those flames and burst them back into the bonfire I needed to renew my strength. Sometimes it would be a call from a friend. Other times it would involve a prayer being answered more quickly than I could have thought possible.”

Even the toughest and most committed leaders among us experience moments where we doubt our own ability to solve the problem we’ve vowed to address. As a result, we’re left feeling run down, burned out, and helpless.

Many of us are driven by empathy and compassion. We understand each other in ways not everyone can. We want everyone to feel okay on the inside, to feel whole, to experience joy, to have hope. We don’t want anyone to suffer or feel pain. We’d love to fix it all with a magic wand, but know we can’t. No matter what we do or how hard we try, we can’t help everyone. So pay attention: when you acutely feel this limitation staring you in the face, compassion exhaustion is about to kick in.


Compassion exhaustion is when you have deep sympathy for someone who is struggling, but your efforts to help that person are so overwhelming that your desire to do so completely wears you down.

When you start to wonder “Am I even making a difference? Am I the only one who cares?” or when your body begins to send you signals in the form of stress and fatigue, you’re likely close to reaching compassion exhaustion.

The little data that exists on the intersection of burnout and social entrepreneurship suggests that chronic stress and depression are already negatively affecting quality of life for many, which isn’t surprising given our culture’s obsession with hustle. In fact, nearly 50 percent of the social entrepreneurs attending the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2018 reported struggling with burnout and depression.

Instead of letting burnout keep you from carrying out your mission, here are four suggestions for how to prevent or overcome compassion exhaustion.


1. Reach out for support

Are you ready for this? Ask for help. That’s right. We know how badass you are. We know how much you’re capable of. But sometimes you have to ask for support.

In the study “The Impact of Compassion Fatigue and Compassion Satisfaction on Social Work Students,” published by the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research, researchers surveyed social work students and human services professionals and found that while young people often begin their work feeling satisfied, they experience high levels of compassion fatigue within the first five years of their professional careers. What’s more, students younger than 40 years old were most affected by compassion fatigue.

These findings highlight the importance of reaching out not only to people who have more experience in your field but also to friends, family, and co-workers. Sometimes it’s the little things that can make a big difference, such as asking for and receiving a check-in phone call or an encouraging text.

Other times, it’s about getting a few things moved off your plate. This is the time to delegate, pass on, or set aside tasks for the moment until you can rest up. Asking for a hug that lasts a little longer doesn’t hurt, either.

2. Release and let go

Here’s a little secret: all those exhausting thoughts running around in your head, not just your kind heart and the work you’re doing, are causing your emotions to deplete you. The good news is that you can fix that. Take notice.

There have been many studies that show the negative psychological effects associated with suppressing our emotions — and the positive effects of accepting them. In a longitudinal study by psychology professors at the University of Toronto and the University of California, Berkeley, an experiment with over 200 participants revealed that those who accepted their emotions were more likely to experience better psychological health.

So, what emotions are coming up for you? Write them down. Get the negative, exhausting ones out of your head one by one. Release them into the wind like a wish on a dandelion. Acknowledge them, take a deep breath in, and let them go.

3. Give people more credit

Sure, we can offer people our time and guidance, but we can also trust them to give things a go for themselves. You are not here to rescue, but to support. Give people more credit. Let them step up and figure it out. You don’t have to carry the heavy burden alone; you can do it together. Although it feels great to help others, it’s also just as important to allow people the space to take on new challenges and help themselves.

4. Take care of yourself

I’m here to remind you that you can care about others and take care of yourself — it doesn’t have to be either/or. In fact, to kick butt as a social entrepreneur, you have to pay attention to what your body is telling you. No matter how much you might want to ignore the signs or push through it, your body will always win. It will hit you with a cold, the flu, or worse, knocking you out for weeks. It takes less time in aggregate to take good care of yourself on a day-to-day basis than it does to recover from spreading yourself too thin.

Above all, remember that you’re not alone here. You’re not the only one who cares. We’re all working on this together.

Equity and Inclusion / Stakeholder Capitalism
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