When you first meet a person, do you ask them their zodiac sign or their Myers-Briggs letters? These days, I’m all about the Enneagram because I think it’s interesting that in someway all of the personality types connect to one another; essentially, we are all much more similar than we are different. Spend more than three minutes around me and, if you know about the Enneagram, you’ll be able to guess that I’m a Helper. Naturally, I gravitate towards careers that are about providing a service. Especially because my work can get incredibly emotional and deal with some pretty intense issues from discrimination to deportation to interpersonal relationship issues, it is easy to fall prey to compassion fatigue.
Recently, I wrote about how your yoga teacher is not your therapist, unless they actually are a therapist and you’re doing somatic work with them. That doesn’t prevent clients from spilling their souls, their deepest heartaches, their most bloodied wounds, to a person they feel is wise and worthy of trust. If you’re a yoga teacher, a school teacher, a counselor, a mentor, a therapist, a doctor, a nurse, a social worker, a human that other people confide in regularly, other people might call your exhaustion burnout. It very well might be, but I want to introduce you to the concept of compassion fatigue.
In another occupation, burnout is a completely suitable term. Perhaps you’ve put in 80 hours at the job this week and the stress of getting a project submitted by the deadline compounds. With service providers, there is the additional element of taking on the emotional intensity and trauma of the client. Usually service providers are highly empathetic and compassionate, as their jobs demand. Clinicians describe compassion fatigue as secondary trauma from repeated exposure to their clients trauma. We are only human and part of what makes us good healers is our ability to empathize, feel the emotional weight, of our clients.
Left unchecked, compassion fatigue can leave a person feeling hopeless, worthless, in existential despair, isolated, unable to sleep, and depressed. Compassion fatigue doesn’t have to signify the end of a career or be an impetus for actions you’ll later regret. Instead, recognize that it is a very real part of the job and like any other ailment, there are solutions and coping strategies available.
What can we do to combat compassion fatigue?
1. Take a break. Often. Mother Teresa actually encouraged her nuns to take a year off every 4–5 years because of the emotional intensity of the service work they were doing. Arguably most service providers find it a financial impossibility to take a year off work. Often the work is our passion so it feels like a greater loss to stop working for a year. The concept of taking a break though is a game changer. Schedule in minimally one day a week that is not about your job or helping other people. Don’t look at your emails. Just don’t do it. Get lost in a novel. Take a 5 hour hike. Do the activities that bring you joy unattached to results.
2. Talk to somebody. Did you know that therapists are required to see therapists? It makes sense when you take compassion fatigue into consideration. We all need someone to help us out, to listen without judgement, to help us sift through our own totally normal feelings that accompany work with large emotional demands. It’s helpful to remember that you are not alone. When I was back in New York for the holidays, my good friend Emily held a yoga teacher’s salon in which a group of us got together to talk about the challenges and the joys of teaching full-time. Essentially it was the start of a support group. Many of the subjects we touched upon I now recognize as compassion fatigue. Having other people empathize with that experience makes it feel less isolating.
3. Eat well. Sleep more. Move your body. Never underestimate the power of taking care of your physiological needs. Often times, in the throws of depression or burnout or fatigue, caring for the physical body is not a priority. Sleep, diet, and exercise all have a direct impact on our emotional well being and our cognitive ability. Sleep-deprived thinking is akin to cognition when intoxicated. Exercise provides the body with endorphins; the regulation of breath can also impact the nervous system in a positive way. A diet high in refined sugar relates to impaired brain function and mood swings. Do yourself a favor by taking care of basic needs, by taking care of yourself, so that you can encounter the unavoidable job stress as your best self.
Compassion Fatigue doesn’t have to mean the end of a career of service. In fact, if you have chosen a job in service, more than likely you will experience this throughout your career. Know that you are not alone and that there is support in the community for you. If this is the first time you’re hearing about compassion fatigue, separate it from the concept of burn out. Though similar, compassion fatigue is directly related to your empathetic response to a client’s trauma. Take care of yourself so that you can continue to provide services to those in need.