Dr. Charles Figley has studied the subject of Compassion Fatigue since the 1970’s. In his words, “Compassion fatigue is a state experienced by those helping people in distress; it is an extreme state of tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is traumatizing for the helper.”
People in caregiving fields, who do not practice self-care, are the most susceptible. This includes people in the medical, veterinarian, social services, counseling fields, first responders, grief recovery professionals, and funeral service personnel to name but a few. If they continually internalize the problems of those they are trying to help, compassion fatigue may result. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Network, has stated this simply as “Caring too much can hurt.”
Does this mean that everyone who works with grievers on a regular basis will suffer from this? Absolutely not! Psychology Today has noted that lay care-givers, as well as professionals, can be touched by this. The key to not falling prey to compassion fatigue is to know the symptoms and take actions for self-care.
You might think that the easiest way to prevent compassion fatigue is to keep yourself emotionally detached from your work. Most of us in care giving fields were taught to keep our “professional distance.” We are taught the value of empathetic listening, but what is often forgotten in the equation is that to show and feel empathy doesn’t mean that you must take on other people’s issues as your own. One of the keys to preventing this is to keep your goal in mind: to educate grievers on the actions they need to take to recover from their personal emotional loss.
Always remember that you cannot recover a griever. You can only offer them the opportunity to take the actions to recovery. While you can support them in taking these actions, the choice is ultimately theirs. If they don't choose to take advantage of this opportunity, it may very well be that they are not yet ready to do the necessary work. It's important that you also remember that their choice to act, or not, is not a reflection on you or your efforts. If you choose to personalize or internalize a sense of blame for their inaction, you're setting yourself up to experience compassion fatigue.
What are the symptoms of Compassion Fatigue?
On a psychological level, symptoms can include:
- Sleep disturbances
- Feeling powerless
On a physical level, symptoms may include:
- General constriction
- Bodily temperature changes
- Fainting spells
- Impaired hearing
As an educated grief recovery professional, you know these are the same common symptoms that our body exhibits when a person is overwhelmed with the emotions associated with grief. When you sense that you are experiencing these symptoms, it is time for you to take the actions of the Grief Recovery Method for yourself.
The most recent edition of “The Grief Recovery Handbook” provides specific direction, in the last two chapters, for dealing with losses that might relate to compassion fatigue. The section on Trauma and PTSD is likely to be the most useful.
If you find that you are suffering from these symptoms, your body is telling you to take action for yourself. Each of the outside resources that were previously noted indicate that many who fail to take action are candidates for “burn out” in their career fields. Taking the same recovery actions for yourself, that you recommend to those who seek your assistance, is essential. You must remember to “practice what you preach!”