Do you work in one of the many helping professions? Are you a caregiver, aid worker, missionary, pastor, serving or helping others in work or life in general? This post is especially for you.
Does the above not apply to you? This post is also for you. Mr. Rogers encouraged us to “look for the helpers” in uncertain times. I implore you to go above that step and check in on the helpers. We need you as much as you need us.
Helpers, let’s state the obvious: we like helping people. We chose our careers, the work we do and the environment in which we do it because we value helping others and we are probably pretty good at it. Helping others is rewarding and life-giving for us. We are making a difference in this world.
Our world has drastically changed in the past five months. Every one of us on this planet were placed in survival mode; semi-survival mode at the least. A heaviness looms above and burdens. Threats of health and safety have increased our levels of stress- physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, spiritually, financially. We have been inundated with messages of fear, shame, and division. We have been isolated from those we love. What even is community anymore? Everything is different.
Helpers have been called upon this year. 2020 has put us into crisis. Crisis mode drives each of us differently. For some, crisis mode kicks our helping instincts and skills up a notch and we go all in. For others, we go into preservation or behind the scenes mode. For many, we tread a fine line of protecting ourselves from the demands while doing our best to meet expectations (ours and others’) and desires to help and care for others during crisis.
Helping others always comes with risks. It is emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically taxing. Sitting with, holding space for, advocating and fighting for, laboring for and with others depletes our energy and takes a toll on every aspect of our being. The weight is heavy.
We are ALL in crisis/survival/semi-survival mode. We are all experiencing 2020 differently. Everything that is happening to and around those were are helping is happening to and around all of us. EVERYONE is stressed. All of our supports are strained. This adds an extra layer of weight.
What happens when the weight is too much? When it starts to erode our empathy, hope, and compassion?
Enter Compassion Fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is a set of symptoms, brought about with caring for others involving trauma, grief, and general hardships. It is a normal and very real effect of our work. A simple definition is a weariness from helping over time, but I find the following definition most helpful:
“Profound emotional and physical exhaustion that helping professionals, missionaries, and caregivers can develop over the course of their career as helpers. It is a gradual erosion of all the things that keep us connected to others in our role: our empathy, our hope, and of course our compassion, not only for others, but for ourselves.” (The Compassion Fatigue Workbook)
Compassion fatigue can lead to burnout. It is therefore imperative that we assess and evaluate our levels of stress so we can implement changes before it gets worse.
How can we care for others when we are in survival mode? How can we care for ourselves? How do we keep compassion fatigue from incapacitating and numbing us to being our best in our helping professions and daily lives? How do we renew hope?
Here are some starting points:
1. Take a self-assessment here: http://www.proqol.org/uploads/ProQOL_5_English_Self-Score_3-2012.pdf
The ProQOL also has a pocket card for self-care and focusing empathy here.
2. Self-care. We have got to take care of ourselves. Daily. This includes adequate rest/sleep, nutrition, exercise/movement, prayer/meditation, carving out time for hobbies and enjoyment, vacation/time away. What recharges and nourishes your soul?
A very helpful starting point is to make a list of daily, then weekly, and monthly strategies you can implement. Self-care is personal. You don’t like baths? Taking a bath is not self-care for you. Drinking coffee on your deck without distractions helps prepare you for the day ahead? That’s self-care!
Self-care is non-negotiable. We CANNOT pour from an empty cup. We cannot effectively care for others without caring for ourselves. Now is the time to start implementing daily self-care.
3. Boundaries. Learn to say, “NO.” Yes, boundaries can make people unhappy with you. Yes, you will “disappoint” some people by setting and keeping your boundaries.
Setting boundaries is a form of self-care. Setting boundaries allows us to preserve our energy so we are better able to help and serve others.
What are some areas of work or life where you need to start setting boundaries? What are some relationships that need some boundary setting? What drains your energy and what gives you life?
4. Community. We’ve been told to stay away from people for five months and there doesn’t seem to be an end point.
We NEED community and connection. Both are vital to every aspect of our health and greatly improves our quality of life. Healing happens in community. Soul replenishment happens in life-giving community. Find ways to get it right now. Your health depends on it.
How can you connect with people who are life-giving to you in these times?
5. Evaluate. Do you need to change jobs? Change something within your job? Take time off? This can be very scary, especially when the alternative is being out of work in a time when jobs are hard to find. If you are experiencing compassion fatigue, you need to evaluate your circumstances and figure out how to implement changes. Again, your health depends on it. Your job may depend on it as well.
This article asks further questions, specifically for social workers/mental health professionals.
6. Seek help. As a therapist, I always recommend counseling. We need to process with someone who understands the risks and effects of the work we do. Most of us who are experts in compassion fatigue/burnout have been through it ourselves. Don’t give up if your therapist is not a good fit. Find a good fit. I recognize that process sucks, especially in crisis. Ask for help.
Connect with others or groups that understand the importance of caring for ourselves in the midst of the work we do. Everything is online now and there are many ways to connect with like-minded people.
7. Resilience is key. Healing from compassion fatigue takes time and it takes effort. How do we become resilient? Resiliency and self-care go hand in hand. Resilient caregivers put the work into health and healing. We care for ourselves. We learn to set, practice, and keep boundaries. Our level of resiliency affects how we are able to adjust through and after adversity.
I could talk for days about the details, symptoms, warning signs, and impacts of compassion fatigue and how to start healing. I have been through it. My healing process took major effort. It was painful and long. I ignored symptoms and let it linger until the damage was done. Now is the time to start evaluating and implementing changes. Helpers, we need help too.
Below are some starting point resources for helping professionals, followed by resources for those in ministry/missionaries/pastors, etc. There are many more than I will reference here, so feel free to share others you come across in the comments.
For helping professionals:
For those in ministry:
These posts on compassion fatigue, burnout, and recovering from burnout were especially helpful in my own process. I highly recommend reading through more of Sarita Hartz’s writings here and a list of resources here.
Trauma & Resilience- A Handbook is a must read: a handbook for church and mission leaders, peer supporters, counselors, those in personnel and member care roles, as well as those who suffer. It is also an excellent resource for training courses about resilience and trauma.
As Soon as I Fell by Kay Bruner for relatable stress, burnout, and resilience.