The Helping Professions are unique in our present-day economic system. Many professions center around providing a good or service that can be advertised and sold based on want rather than need. It is about the product, not the relationship. If you've chosen to help others for a living – through teaching, nursing and other medical professions, mental health, crisis intervention services/first responders, child care, caregiving for adults in need of support, or facilitating health and well-being through acupuncture, massage and other healing arts – you are dancing to the beat of a different drummer. Your job centers around relationships, and you likely came to your work with a deep compassion and care for others, a desire to serve, support, connect and make a difference.
Every job is stressful. The stress of meeting deadlines, trying to please a supervisor,
shave money off of a budget or climb the corporate ladder undoubtedly cause unwanted mental, emotional and physical symptoms in many people. While Helping Professionals can experience many of these challenges as well, there is an altogether different type of stress that is unique to relationship-based work.
Caregivers and healers are in close contact with a tremendous amount of suffering on a daily basis and are internally driven to alleviate this suffering. An occupational hazard of this type of work is called compassion fatigue.
“Compassion Fatigue has been described as the “cost of caring" for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment of our career, and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us into this work: our empathy and compassion for others.” (Mathieu 2007)
Clearly, prolonged exposure to the pain, confusion, emotional dysregulation, trauma and hopelessness of others in our care impacts us profoundly. The cultural devaluing of caregiving and helping work, evidenced by the crammed caseloads and low pay that categorizes many of these jobs, takes an additional toll. Self-care is essential for the caregiver, and oftentimes the resources (money) necessary for adequate self-care are not accessible because this work is grossly underpaid. The people we are caring for – children, the elderly, people who are sick, mentally ill, struggling with addiction, healing from trauma or have developmental disabilities – are undervalued by society and we are undervalued by extension because we care for them. Over time, we may internalize the devaluing of our work and ourselves, and thus respond to compassion fatigue – which, remember, is inherent in the work we do – by blaming ourselves for our loss of empathy and burnout. We think there is something wrong with us for feeling this way and our sense of self-worth and dignity suffers. We don't need blame, or shame, or criticism. We need support. We deserve support. And our patients and clients deserve to have us get the support we need too.
If we trace back the roots of the word “compassion,” we find the Latin word “compati” which means “to suffer with.” When understood in this way, compassion fatigue is really just compassion, a deep “feeling with” and, at times, “suffering with,” that we've chosen to take on because we understand how interconnected we all are. Or, perhaps, compassion fatigue is this intense “feeling-with” unbalanced by self-care and adequate compensation and support.
In my practice, I specialize in working with individuals in the Helping Professions. I support clients who are impacted by compassion fatigue, burnout, vicarious trauma and secondary traumatic stress. Because I value Helping Professions and I disagree strongly with the minimal compensation afforded those who do this work, I offer a very flexible sliding scale for helpers and caregivers. If you are in need of support, please reach out, I'd love to hear from you!