Why they are just as important as Self-care
The notion of “self-care” has been a popular response to compassion fatigue and burn-out. As I wrote in my previous blog, promoting self-care alone can be problematic. I proposed that maybe we should be focused more on “compassionate connections.” I wanted to follow-up on that thought.
In my book, The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to the Helping Professional, I write that compassion is the antidote for compassion fatigue.
Indeed, there is a growing body of research supporting the idea that compassion can have a positive effect on the compassion giver as well as the recipient. A compassionate response has been shown to both calm the threat response while triggering the reward system.
However, the idea of being more compassionate can seem counterintuitive to a helping professional experiencing secondary trauma and burnout.
The problem might be that, as helping professionals, we often think of a compassionate response as being able to fix something that is not ours to fix or not in our power to fix. This can cause boundary breaches that trigger unhelpful protective emotional and interpersonal responses.
So, we need to shift our thinking to acknowledge that a compassionate response can also be an empathetic presence. Offering an understanding ear, or just sitting with someone in their suffering can be profoundly healing. Compassion is about human-to-human connection, and these connections nourish the giver as well as the receiver.
Strengthening our compassion muscle involves exercising our ability to be empathetic and doing so in the context of healthy boundaries.
This does not mean we should not also be compassionate to ourselves. But self-care begins with seeing ourselves as recipients not just dispensers of compassion. We do not have to choose between ourselves and others. We practice self-care so we can respond compassionately to each other. So, it is important that the self-care practices we choose are nourishing and connective, not numbing.
In my book, I use the analogy of a circuit breaker to describe compassion fatigue. A circuit breaker is tripped as a safety feature, temporarily shutting off the power to overloaded circuits. Your home is not out of power, you just need to unplug a few things and reset the breaker. Our threat response to compassionate work and secondary trauma can feel as if our compassion has been depleted. But just like a circuit breaker in our home, we need to reset and remember that compassion is renewable.
We do not need to conserve compassion; we need to restore its ability to heal and connect us.