There is an analogy I use with my compassion fatigued clients and workshop participants to try and conceptualize the “burnout” process. I tell them it is like standing in the hot sun, for hours, with no hat, sunblock or shade, and willing yourself not to get sunburned. Eventually, despite your mental efforts, your body will pay the price. And so, unfortunately, can it be with helping others.
This blog will hopefully arm you with some tools and techniques that will act as your sunblock. Like the sun, our clients’ issues are not “good” or “bad”. Also like the sun, extended exposure can have a significant impact on our health. Therefore preparing ourselves prior to meeting with clients can help ensure ongoing enjoyment of the work we do.
Step 1: Educate yourself. Learn everything you can about the costs and challenges of helping others. Understand the trauma process, what secondary traumatic stress is, and the signs or symptoms of Compassion Fatigue and professional burnout. Having a good supervisor or mentor, who can help you navigate the balancing act of helping others while taking care of yourself, can be invaluable. Plus, it is not unusual for others to notice when we are feeling stressed or worn out before we do.
Step 2: Cultivate Self-Awareness. Learn how to check in with yourself and do it regularly. Understand what your triggers are, be honest with yourself about your limitations, and establish an intimate familiarity with your relaxed versus stressed states. I once had a TCM doctor and spiritual guide recommend that I both check-in and ground myself every time I walked through a doorway. I have gotten to the place now where I can quickly establish how stressed/distracted or ungrounded I am by taking a few seconds to turn inwards. Like any other skill, the more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Step 3: Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries! As like many new counsellors, I once threw myself into my work, both in number of clients I would take on, and the degree of emotional investment I put into each session. Learning how to manage my emotional and energetic boundaries with clients was an imperative step in my recovery from the inevitable CompassionFatigue I experienced. External boundaries are equally (and sometimes just as difficult!) to establish and maintain – these include hours you work, size of caseload, agency/supervisor expectations, and client expectations (e.g. being available 24/7 for “support”). Healthy boundaries can change over time as you find your rhythm as a professional but are a very important ingredient in every helper’s recipe for well-being. Don’t forget that supervision or consultation with a colleague can help you gain clarity in challenging boundary situations, especially if you are experiencing guilt at not being able to meet all your clients’ needs.
Step 4: Skills & Supports When I graduated from my master’s program and completed a full year of internship, I felt ready to take on the counselling world! What I discovered over the next 12 years was how much I did not know, and how many valuable tools and interventions existed that I could learn about through various trainings, workshops, conferences, and colleagues. Learning skills specific to your client population (e.g. addictions, trauma) is invaluable in helping you prevent Compassion Fatigue. Learn how to recognize and manage those energetic boundaries and you will have one of the most powerful tools in your toolkit!
Also, learning how to manage or discharge your stress (and accumulated energy from others) is imperative. Exercise, yoga, meditation, spirituality, energy work, your own counselling, pets, cleansing rituals, humour, journaling/blogging, and positive, supportive colleagues, friends and family are all healing for helpers. Take your vacations. Take your holidays. Don’t work overtime. Learn to say no. Love yourself and treat yourself with the same caring and compassion that you treat your clients. In short, enjoy the sun but don’t forget your sunblock!
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA