It can happen to you.

Whether you’re a professional helper (first responder, police, nurse, doctor, coach, social-worker, teacher, pastor) or a leader in a major corporation, small business, or team member who gives personal-hands-on support it can happen… especially when you and your employees/co-workers/clients are facing a disaster and/or traumatic event.

It happened to me as I’m sitting in my car, waiting in the same spot in traffic for an hour to access I-610 South to get to my big day of client meetings. I’m their hands-on supportive coach whom employees can confidentially talk to about work and/or personal stresses. A trip which usually takes under an hour is taking 3 hours. Then again, we aren’t usually recovering from a hurricane. Breathe.

That’s right… a hurricane. I’ve left 3 messages for my client group updating my estimated time of arrival. I hate being late, but more importantly, I’m feeling unsafe… so unexpected, yet a part of me knows it’s the accumulative impact of taking in emotional, stressful stories for the past week. Breathe.

An employee told me he felt odd because his usual concern for others was missing while a corporate manager talked about worrying for her employees, waking earlier than normal and noticing her patience at home is much less. A crisis responder talked about having a nightmare where people were anxiously grabbing for her and she woke herself (and her partner) out of sleep yelling HELP! Breathe.

Your compassion, goodwill, generosity, humanity, or love – it’s all used up. You’re running on nearly-empty, feel like crying (but don’t), want to give the finger (but don’t) instead of waving to the driver of the car cutting in line in front of you… and then you feel guilty you felt so aggressive. Breathe.

It’s called Compassion Fatigue— (Dr. Charles Figley– 1995)

“We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients –(employees/co-workers). We experience their fears. We dream their dreams.

Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves.”

Simply, compassion fatigue is a type of physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that changes a person’s ability to feel happy or to care for others.

it’s a normal phenomenon… and you’ll get through it too.

In this article…

You’ll get 3 ways to cope when your compassion to connect with others and feel their pain (empathy) are exhausted.

Deep breath… smile… let the coping begin…

1– Recognize that the “soft skills” (listening, empathizing, caring, compassion) are pretty damn hard.

That’s right.

My heart smiled when I read how Professor Adam Waytz, cringes! He’s an associate professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He cringes when students refer to his department’s coursework—on leadership, teams, and negotiation—as “soft skills.”

Here’s what he said that I agree with wholeheartedly: Understanding and responding to the needs, interests, and desires of other human beings involves some of the hardest work of all. He then emphasizes the arduous mental discipline required to get next to another’s pain and respond in a compassionate way rather than indifferently.

He gets it… and so should you as the helper/team member/manager showing up compassionately during traumatic times as well as other non-traumatic times. Sharing yourself is rewarding… and draining too.

Leaders who acknowledge the sensitive talent and hard work of these team members/managers are way ahead of most.

Personal sharing matters…

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ― Leo Buscaglia

2– Familiarize yourself with the signs of compassion fatigue and identify your warning signs.

Ask yourself: On a scale of 0 (not an issue) to 10 (red hot issue), what is a 4 for me? What is a 9 for me?

The common signs of compassion fatigue include: chronic anger or emotional outbursts, depression, physical complaints (headaches, lower back aches, pains in the neck, scratchy throat, stomach aches), inability to feel joy, trouble sleeping, never taking time off for yourself, self-doubt, not feeling pleasure, poor work performance or increased absences, blaming others for how you feel, mental and or physical fatigue, irritability or emotional sensitivity, unhealthy eating habits, overly high expectations of yourself, low self-esteem, distrust, sarcasm and/or negative humor, alcohol and/or drug abuse, sadness and apathy, making more mistakes than usual, nightmares, and hoping for client cancellations.

Compassion fatigue has a faster recovery time if recognized and managed early.

If your symptoms persist and your discomfort doesn’t shift however, please seek professional help.

3– Make time to practice an authentic, sustainable self-care plan.

I know you have read this stuff before, but it’s time to follow through and make the time to practice your plan. Self-sacrificing isn’t all that noble (cool) anymore… neither is skipping vacations or working 24/7. I read that recently… check it out. 😉

Does your self-care plan include…

  • knowing your warning signs (see above) and action steps for responding. (eg. taking a day off)
  • identifying what personally hurts you and disconnecting. (I don’t listen to animal cruelty stories anymore. I tell people I can’t listen and offer to help them find another way to share. I don’t look at pictures or movies with cruelty either.)
  • names of supportive others you can seek out to talk to or a journal for writing.
  • the basics of good nutrition, sleep, physical movement and of course, breathing… let’s all take a deep breath now.
  • connecting with something greater than yourself (some people call it spirituality)… it could be an organized religious activity or listening to Rachmaninoff, visiting an art museum, watching whales or meditating.
  • having fun… laughing.
  • being mindful of the present without judging what you’re experiencing as good or bad. Finding gratefulness. Lowering expectations of “what you should be doing.”
  • other things you’ve done in the past that helps you get in touch with your strengths and resourcefulness.
“Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.”   –Ray Bradbury

Here’s your take-away…

Compassion fatigue happens.

Helping professionals, leaders, managers and team members who share compassion during times of unexpected trauma or at other times when personal time and energy is needed to support co-workers/employees are to be:

  1. Recognized for their hard work.
  2. Encouraged to identify their warning signs of compassion fatigue.
  3. Plan and practice their self-care plan.

Let me know you are alive and well. Share some of your good energy below!

Contact me... let’s take a break and talk.