"You don't have to think about doing the right thing. If you're for the right thing, then you do it without thinking."
~ Maya Angelou

September 7, 2012

Greatest Strength/Greatest Vulnerability

"Most of us became counselors because we wanted to assist others in need. Yet our capacity for compassion, along with the intensity of our work can, at times, leave us vulnerable for "compassion fatigue." This is a term that was coined to describe the set of symptoms experienced by caregivers who become so overwhelmed by the exposure to the feelings and experiences of their clients that they themselves experience feelings of fear, pain, and suffering including intrusive thoughts, nightmares, loss of energy, and hyper-vigilance. It can be cumulative (from the effects helping many clients) or occur in response to a particularly challenging or traumatic individual case. This extreme state of anxiety and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped becomes traumatizing for the helper. For this reason it is sometimes called "vicarious traumatization" or "secondary traumatization" (Figley,1995).

Good day to all those that can hear me!  Today I bring you some words, thoughts, and an opportunity to process further what exactly does "Compassion Fatigue" mean to you?  This piece was influenced as a result of some recent posts/outreach that I put out there on our facebook page http://www.facebook.com/DJcanUhearmeAs you will notice I included the above definition and explanation as a means to set the stage.  Please note that there are many versions and thoughts on this subject matter, and this is one of many, but one that I felt represented the topic well.  However, more than an explanation of, or further definition, I want to take this opportunity to share some of my own experiences, in addition to creating awareness on your part.  What you will do from here is really up to you...

So, when I posted the information on "Compassion Fatigue" my goal was to provide support/education to those providers who may be susceptible & vulnerable (whether they recognize it or not), while reinforcing the Prevention, Resiliency and Treatment model.  This generated some engagement and response, which I was pleased to see as this allowed me to believe that the message was somewhat heard.  Often times in our profession there is this unheard culture where you don't acknowledge when you are suffering, when things are affecting/effecting you in a stressful and compromising manner.  Call it being stubborn, prideful, and perhaps at times not secure with your abilities and competencies, and how this may play itself out when others (i.e. co-workers, supervisors, etc.) are informed of what you are presenting with.  Now, this is not the entire culture as there are many examples of great support systems in many helping professional circles, but lets not dismiss the opposite as it does exist.  I can speak first hand to that from my own experiences working within two large public "non-social work/social service" systems where there was support, but not the kind that could adequately address the symptoms and effects of "Compassion Fatigue."  This was unfortunate as I was exposed to many intense, challenging, and traumatic events that I know had a direct effect on me, whether I was able to see it from a conscious understanding or not.  

Can I say that these past experiences directly attributed to the challenges and stressors that eventually led to serious burnout (a byproduct of Compassion Fatigue)?  Sure, they had an affect and effect as a result, how could they not?  When it was happening I was not always so kind to myself, self-care, and overall well-being.  However, I learned some valuable lessons as a result, which in turn only enhanced my practice, awareness, and opportunity to help others work through these moments of challenge.  So, be mindful of the warning signs and symptoms, and recognize when (and you should) reach out for the support that can adequately help you help yourself. I can assure you that when you do, and if you commit to the necessary work, you will be rewarded both in your personal and professional circles.  I'll leave you with this to help you process a little further:

"While our training, professionalism, and good boundaries within our helping roles are protective, really anyone with the capacity for true compassion, empathy, concern and caring is vulnerable to compassion fatigue. In other words, the greatest strength that you have to bring to your occupation- your capacity to develop a compassionate connection with your clients-is also your greatest vulnerability. Therefore, it is not a characteristic that you would choose to give up, rather it is more logical to educate yourself so you understand compassion fatigue and know what you can do if you begin experiencing symptoms. Realize that the more prolonged exposure to traumatic events you experience (working too long of hours), the more personal life demands you have, and the more isolated you become from others collectively increase your vulnerability for compassion fatigue" (Panos, 2007).

Until we meet again, be strong out there, stand up and stay up!

 "Not everything that is faced can be changed.  But nothing can be changed until it is faced"
~James Baldwin 

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