‘Martyr Syndrome’ or Compassion Fatigue Causing You Stress? Part 1 | Hypnolight Hypnotherapy
‘Martyr Syndrome’ or Compassion Fatigue Causing You Stress? Part 1 | Hypnolight Hypnotherapy

I looked at his grey skin and protruding cheekbones as he slumped into the sofa. He had lost weight and looked permanently exhausted. He worked crazy hours, running after everybody, his body was shutting down and he was telling me that his family life started to suffer. When he finally took some time off work for a week, he spent it in bed as he was ill. There is only so much your body can take. Then he dropped a bombshell and said: “I can’t imagine doing anything else”.

My reply was:

“You know, the world has already had Mother Teresa. That’s been done before, so you don’t need to be doing that. Wake up and start looking after yourself for a change.”

Yes, my former colleague from Edinburgh had what I have started calling the ‘Martyr Syndrome’. It is rife in front line services – it is part of their job to look after someone else, often the most vulnerable people in our society. It is all very noble and those of us who are (were) on the front line have been repeatedly told that it’s a line of work that one cannot do for money. (Mind you, I have come across some individuals who tried to…but they did not last very long in their jobs. Not that it’s that well paid anyway.) However, it’s not visible only in care jobs. I have seen this among my friends in other jobs too. Being compassionate is a wonderful thing, but there is a fine line between caring and giving too much. If you start taking everyone else’s problems on your shoulders and not looking after yourself physically and mentally, it will bite you hard. I know, because I experienced this first hand and did have a burn out. It was a lesson learned in a very hard way.

Over the years I have met some people who seemed to just wander through life, without a sense of purpose, often feeling that their lives are empty and that they need to ‘give’ something. Or even had the ‘need to be needed’ which I found was often the case if there were issues with low self-esteem or confidence. To gain a sense of purpose by trying to live one’s life through satisfying someone else’s needs is unhealthy. Another former colleague would complain that:

“I don’t have time to eat, to sleep properly, there is so much to do at work”

…but felt a sense of accomplishment because she managed to get ‘so much done’ at her work. With a sense of triumph on her face, it was as if she saw it as a badge of honour. When she moaned again about how she did not have time to eat, I firmly said,

“I have no sympathy for you because this is all self-inflicted and it’s not something to be proud of.” Yes, I have been known to give tough love.

At that point I gave up trying to speak to her about how she needed to start looking after herself and about that elusive thing called work-life balance. Sometimes people need to come to their own realisation. Maintaining a proper work/life balance is a huge issue and not only in the care sector, it seems to be spread across all sectors. When work massively overtakes play and we start neglecting ourselves, things begin to go wrong rapidly. In healthcare professions it is known as ‘compassion fatigue’ – which is described as ‘the cost of caring’ for others in emotional or physical pain (Maatheu, 2007). It’s a real occupational hazard and signs of it can include:

• Exhaustion
• Reduced ability to feel sympathy and empathy
• Anger and irritability
• Increased use of alcohol and drugs
• Dread of working with certain clients/patients
• Diminished sense of enjoyment of career
• Disruption to world-view, heightened anxiety or irrational fears
• Intrusive imagery or dissociation
• Hypersensitivity or Insensitivity to emotional material
• Difficulty separating work life from personal life
• Absenteeism – missing work, taking many sick days
• Impaired ability to make decisions and care for clients/patients
• Problems with intimacy and in personal relationships

As a result, many of those suffering from this syndrome end up having issues with their physical and mental health, often resulting in anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies. Stress is real and it’s one of the most common (if not the most common) reason behind many illnesses – IBS, stomach ulcers and other digestive problems, skin rashes, recurring colds, anxiety, depression…I have already mentioned the danger of stress hormones in my previous blog.

for blog 4Hypnotherapy can be a great tool for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. I have a free mp3 download on my site that may help you to reduce your stress levels by teaching you a simple, yet effective, stress management tool. In my next blog, I’ll talk about how you can protect yourself from compassionate fatigue and the ‘Martyr Syndrome’.

If you feel that you may benefit from a personal hypnotherapy session, then please get in touch. I know a lot about the ‘Martyr Syndrome’ and compassion fatigue. We may be able to explore the underlying reasons behind ‘why’ you are engaging in behaviour like this. Hypnotherapy is an excellent tool for getting to the core of a whole range of issues, including this. As I have a great affinity for nurses and healthcare workers, I give 10% discount on sessions for those in that industry (you don’t have to be employed by the NHS).

I am based in Dunfermline in Fife but am located conveniently close to Dunfermline Town railway station so regularly see clients from Edinburgh too.

I welcome any comments that you may have on this blog. In the meantime, take it easy and look after yourself. Being aware of your own needs and feeling compassionate towards yourself can go a long way.


reference: Maatheu F. (2007) Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue in Health Professionals. Rehab and Community care medicine. You can find it here (http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/RunningOnEmpty.pdf)