• Let’s Play Pretend – Compassion Fatigue

    “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet” (Remen, 1996)

    Perhaps a dated quote, but one that I could not state more clearly, more intentionally and more directly. Let’s look at the definitions as per the American Institute of Stress for the terms we will be discussing today:

    Compassion Fatigue
    Also called “vicarious traumatization” or secondary traumatization (Figley, 1995). The emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events. It differs from burn-out, but can co-exist. Compassion Fatigue can occur due to exposure in one case or can be due to a “cumulative” level of trauma.
    Cumulative process marked by emotional exhaustion and withdrawal associated with increased workload and institutional stress, NOT trauma-related.
    Primary Traumatic Stress
    Primary stressors are those inherent in the extreme event, such as what was immediately experienced or witnessed, especially those things most contributing to a traumatic response.”

    As we discussed last week, compassion fatigue is different from burnout from one critical issue: the presence (or lack thereof) of trauma.

    Helping Professionals deal with trauma in one form or another every day. Sometimes every hour. Feeling crispy takes on an additional meaning that impacts us at the core. It looks similar, the symptoms are identical, but the impact at the core is deeper and takes a different approach to heal.

    In looking at personality traits, helping professionals tend to put the needs of others before their own. We see the pain in others and know that we have the skills to partner with them to heal. We seek to heal on an emotional, physical or even spiritual level depending on our scope of practice.

    But who heals us?

    A therapist last week told me that she “has no clue how to follow her own advice”. An adoption worker yesterday told me that “self care is last on her list”. An emergency room physician told me that she “stayed up all night trying to develop a vaccine”. A pastor told me that he “lived in fear that the truth of his life would be found out”.

    And I watch Caribbean Life dreaming of my new life on a beach in Fiji where everyone is happy.

    So if burnout is healed by self care, balance and boundaries – how do we address compassion fatigue in healers that are constantly exposed? Is there a way to still do what we do AND manage our fatigue at the same time?


    Why can I say that so definitively? Because I have to believe that there is a way to have a balance. To see the ugliness of what the world offers some people but also be able to see the beauty in life every day. To be able to wade into the muck with those we work with but not take any muck with us when they leave. To have empathy and not sympathy. To partner and empower – not fix.

    Easier said than done, but still able to be accomplished. Tonight I spoke with my fabulous graduate students about therapeutic use of self. Balancing who we are as individuals, what our narrative speaks for us with healthy clinical boundaries. How to share enough of ourselves as healers through our words, our actions, our interventions and our behaviors. While still maintaining our strength of self identity, purpose and authenticity when we walk away.

    Our identities tend to become WHAT we do instead of WHO we are. When we start to focus on WHO we are instead of what our occupation is, we can ground ourselves in a life in which we thrive instead of exist. A life in which we can be our authentic self while still being a rock star at work. A life that has balance, self care and boundaries.

    Compassion Fatigue is a real thing and if more of us were honest, I think we would all admit being there at some point during our careers.

    Especially right now in a crazy, surreal, upside down pandemic world that changes daily.

    Since I practiced what I am trying to convey a few weekends ago, there will be a bonus blog on Wednesday this week to wrap up our discussion on Imposter Syndrome that will focus on the impact of the pandemic to our ability to live in a world that does not feel real. The focus will be on concrete tips on how to manage feeling crispy through burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma or simply not wanting to be an imposter any longer.

    You can always SUBSCRIBE by clicking the word and you will be emailed each week as new content is posted so you will not lose your momentum changing you from the inside out as we conclude the Imposter Syndrome series and start diving into Authenticity during the month of July.

    As I have stated previously, being known for who you uniquely are at the core is a freeing experience. One that will take bravery and vulnerability, but one that can be achieved.

    Always remember to take care of you. You are worth it!