Earlier this week, the Dallas city skyline displayed one bold word, “Enough,” across the Omni Hotel in downtown. If you had been living under a rock and had no contact with the outside world these last few weeks, you would have been very confused by the sight. However, for those of us who have been witness to the tragic and painful attacks in our country and across the globe, you probably took a heavy breath and said “yea, enough.”
Workers in the helping profession are very familiar with the term “compassion fatigue.” We are taught how to recognize it in ourselves and our co-workers, prevention techniques, and the harm it can cause if gone unnoticed in our professional and personal lives. Even with all of that training and knowledge, I still felt confused as to why I woke up every morning exhausted and dreading the day. It took talking it through with my amazing staff of therapeutic experts for me to realize that I had been hit with compassion fatigue, not from my day to day therapist duties, but from the suffering I have been witnessed from around the world lately.
You may recognize this feeling as well. The desire to scream, “Enough! Just stop.” The heavy feeling that discussing the tragic events that occurred in Dallas, Niece, Batton Rouge, and Germany brings with it. There is a confusion that accompanies compassion fatigue. I want to express compassion for my fellow man, I do feel empathy and sadness at the pain I see happening, and I know logically that I feel very deeply for the injured, murdered, and mourning. Still, I can’t seem to muster the energy necessary to fully share any of that. It’s overwhelming, and having been repeatedly exposed to such intense emotions, I am left empty. Any of this sounding familiar?
Apathy in the face of repeated exposure to trauma is a strong sign that you are experiencing compassion fatigue. Thankfully, there are many ways to work through this feeling and replenish your emotional energy. Here are some tips to help.
One major defense against compassion fatigue it to simply acknowledge that it is happening to you. This feeling will not last forever, and you will get back to normal. Even so, it is important to realize and accept where you are on your path towards equilibrium. Keep a journal where you can write down your feelings about the trauma and where you can explore the conflicting feelings of compassion fatigue.
Time to reprioritize and put your own care at the top of the list. It may sound selfish to focus on your needs when so many others around you are in pain, but you can only help them if you are fully charged. Stop skipping your “me” time and realize that there is plenty of time for both you and others (in that order).
Catastrophic events, like those in Dallas, easily become our main focus. We may find it difficult to think of or talk about anything else. We can become obsessive in our attention to this one horrific event, leaving us blind to other areas in life. However, in order to move through compassion fatigue, we need to look at the other parts of life around us. Resume hobbies, spend time with friends who energize you, read about a topic unrelated to the trauma, anything to help open yourself to another focus.
The unique dynamic of a therapeutic relationship is perfectly aligned to treat compassion fatigue. While support from trusted friends and your own journaling is incredibly valuable, the relationship in a counseling setting goes above and beyond. This is the one place where it is truly all about you. You are not obligated to your therapist in any way besides financially. You don’t have to take care of their feelings or ask them how they are doing. This arena is reserved for you and your feelings alone. When you are overwhelmed with feelings so much for so many, it is refreshing to enter into a room where the only thing that matters for that hour is you.