Compassion and Compassion Fatigue

He’s an experienced social worker. Now in his mid-thirties, he’s taken a position as the leader of a crisis team in his urban county. He and his team could be called on to stabilize mental health related crises anywhere in the county. This was the kind of job he really wanted. This was a way that he could use his skills to meet the needs of people who sometimes fall through the cracks in the mental health system.

He’s also a person committed to nurturing the spiritual dimension of his life. He and his husband spend time each day together in prayer. He also maintains his own contemplative practice. He understands his work as a healing ministry … an extension of his other work as a Reiki practitioner.

Each day, before he leaves home, his husband prays a blessing over him. It’s a prayer for safety and wisdom. He finds that this intentional blessing helps to sustain him during the day. At the end of the day, he returns home tired and spent from tending to people in crisis. Even more exhausting is the one week each month he’s on-call 24 hours a day for seven days in a row.

Many people in the helping professions experience significant demands on them. The work can be exhausting. Over time, many professionals find that their energy is dissipated, some symptoms of clinical depression set in, and that their work has little appeal to them. This kind of “burn-out” is often called “compassion fatigue.” It’s as though someone has given too much of self and has lost the capacity for compassion and empathy. Their resiliency is limited, at best.

What struck me most about hearing this man’s story was that it’s very similar to my own. When I was in my mid-thirties, I was busy doing many things – very good things. I was clinical director of a pastoral counseling agency, founding pastor of a new church, and preceptor in an inter-disciplinary internship program. I’d spend time each morning in prayer. Most evenings before bed, I’d unwind with exercise followed by meditation. I thought I was taking good care of myself. That was until I recognized that I was seriously burnt-out.

In the midst of the very hectic and demanding life I was leading, I knew that I needed to nurture the spiritual dimension of my life. I was intentional about doing exactly that by taking time for spiritual practice in the morning and evening each day. But it just wasn’t enough. It was out of this experience that I learned that caring for others without self-compassion simply isn’t sustainable.

Recognizing that I needed to make significant changes to my life, I moved from Miami, Florida where I was working these several different positions simultaneously for six years to Tucson, Arizona. I decided on Tucson when I was invited to visit a church there that was looking for a new pastor. I knew that I wasn’t the right minister for that church. But I discovered that something about the Sonoran desert drew me toward a deep, inner stillness. I relocated to Tucson. Over the first two years I lived there, I made cultivating the spiritual dimension of life a high priority. I prayed at a Benedictine monastery daily, took meditative walks most mornings, and maintained a quiet life. I wrote about this transition in my book, Stumbling Into Life’s Lessons: Reflections on the Spiritual Journey.

It was not just that I recovered from my experience of burn-out and compassion fatigue. Instead, I learned that to lead a life that was balanced I needed more time in spiritual practice than I had been giving myself. Compassion towards myself required a kind of leisure in regard to nurturing my inner being.

Research has shown that when people live in a way that is compassionate to self and others, then they become more resilient. That’s true even when people work in very demanding positions with the suffering of others each day. I think the challenge of this is understanding what it really means to be compassionate toward self. It’s not the same for everyone. Instead, what is needed to maintain a balanced life can vary from one person to another.

As I think of the young social worker who is enthusiastic and engaged in his work, I wonder if he will find himself needing to experience burnout as I did in order to learn to more appropriately care for self. Perhaps he’ll experience compassion fatigue ….or perhaps his current spiritual practices will help him find ways to lead an even more balanced life. After all, it doesn’t require hitting the wall to learn life lessons. Many people figure things out in less dramatic ways than was true for me.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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2 Responses to Compassion and Compassion Fatigue

  1. Carrie says:

    Thank you for this, it echoes what I’ve been feeling.
    My daughter was killed in horrific circumstances in 2011. I was unable to work at all for over a year. After that I returned to work, largely in dementia care. Because my resilience has been hugely reduced, I work far fewer hours than I ever did before. But even so, the nature of the work and the high standards that I’m determined to uphold mean that I still care deeply and cope well when I’m engaged in the work itself; it’s when I come home that I think, “Oh gosh, I can’t go back. I’m too weary from the responsibility.” I think that some of this mental and emotional exhaustion is because of something my therapist sister describes as “Having a lot of responsibility but little control”. (As in having little control over how to manage the responsibility.) So often in the caring professions we’re required to carry out a heavy workload in very prescribed ways and without sufficient time. Anyway, you are so right in reminding us that we really must care for ourselves as well. Speaking for myself, it can be tricky to work out quite how.

  2. Hi Lou,
    Another interesting topic. Thank you.
    Burnout is possibly the biggest challenge a carer encounters. Because of the responsibility the carer feels, it is common to put one’s self last. I am a carer and it has been a battle to appropertly care for myself. I am still learning, however, I am getting better at it. To make my experience a little unforgiving, is that I taught Self Care. I was really good at teaching it. I had all the answers to all the questions my students asked me. I did do my field work and I did have an understanding of sorts. I was full of knowledge, but in hindsight, I had only an essence of real understanding, until I became a carer in my own home. Even when I was working, I gave 100% to make sure that my students and counsellors were supported as much as possible. When one is passionate to help people in any capacity, burnout is a constant enemy. It is very important to leave one’s “work” at the door, to take time out for one’s self — the world won’t fall apart. It is good to remember, that even Christ took time out for Himself. I wouldn’t call Him uncaring or selfish. Even His disciples didn’t always know where He went. He needed time out and so do carers. I think there is a lesson in that for us all.

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