Beyond Compassion Fatigue: The Phoenix in Flight

Posted by: Siri Brown on August 15, 2012 12:15 pm

When first embarking on the adventure and honour of helping others as a professional, credentialed, certified therapist, it is all you can do to contain your excitement as you await each new client.  Brimming over with theories, interventions and techniques, the beginner counsellor knows, in their bones, that they can make a difference. It is a wonderful, fulfilling knowing and despite the occasional bouts of doubt and moments of uncertainty, it is an amazing time in a counsellor’s career, and I reveled in it as I embarked on my dream profession.

So what happened to me? To many of us? You know, to our dreams of helping hundreds of hurting clients and becoming self-actualized in the process? Instead, many of us have found ourselves 10, 15, 20 years down the road burned out, weary, depressed and doubting. Even wondering, in our darker moments, whether counselling really helps anyone in the long run anyway. Not a fun place to be. And not a place one has to stay, either.  As one of my favourite colleagues likes to point out, “suffering is optional”.

I have been “there and back” more than once, and know that not only do compassion fatigue and professional burnout not have to result in a career change, but you can come back wiser, stronger, and more spiritually attuned. After taking time off and doing my healing work (counselling, mind/body psychotherapy, spiritual work, journaling, exercise, nature and lots and lots of honest self-reflection,) I have been able to return to do the work I love.  Like the phoenix from the flames, I have returned to the helping profession from my own ashes.

When I look back at how my work was affecting me, I want to weep for my younger self – such suffering, such secrecy, so unnecessary…  

A vivid memory from my second round of compassion fatigue:

 I am co-facilitating a group of women in recovery, and every sharing as the women check-in weighs on me like chunks of cement…ten, fifteen, twenty minutes….I feel like I am drowning in heaviness as sharp jabs penetrate my chest over my heart space.  I automatically begin to knead the area, making small, pressured circles with the pads of my fingers.  

My mind starts turning in on itself, blocking out the voice of the person sharing, beginning its own lament…

Please, please, enough! Enough drama! Enough sad stories! Why can’t anyone talk about something positive or just be grateful for once? What do you really think I can do to change your past, heal your present, improve your future? I am not a miracle worker!  You have to do your own work!  We all have problems…

Immediately feelings of shame, guilt, and self-reproach flood my being. Plus now my co-facilitator and another group member are watching with curiosity as my fingers continue to make slow, soothing circles on my chest. I nonchalantly lower my hand to my lap,  force my awareness from inwards to outwards, and sigh to myself.  It’s going to be another long day.

Since then, I have gone on antidepressants, gone off, (and on and off) rediscovered the joy (and peace) of yoga, let my perfectionism go, embraced better boundaries, accepted the guilt and discomfort that sometimes accompanies my saying “no” (yes, I am still a work in progress!) and generally eased myself into a more sustainable way of being with my work. It has been a long, and definitely not linear, road, but I can honestly say that I know, deep within my being, that I can be involved in helping my fellow human beings for the rest of my life.  And that, to me, is the phoenix in flight!

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

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