The first time I suffered from counsellor burnout, aka Compassion Fatigue, was at my first job at a residential treatment centre. I was young, fresh, idealistic and ready to dive into the rewarding work of helping others. After only about a year and a half, I was drinking regularly, smoking again after a hiatus of over a year and a half, and exercising compulsively (at least an hour and a half a day). I was crying on my way home from work, and frustrated and ashamed of myself and my apparent lack of healthier “coping skills”.
I didn’t know what was going on – how come I was struggling so much? Why was I feeling the need to escape from my feelings so compulsively? Why was I so emotionally sensitive? What had happened to the old me? Despite my efforts at distracting myself, the cracks started to show – I have two distinct memories that helped me realize something was really wrong.
The first one was during a massage, when the massage therapist placed her hands on my shoulders and asked, “why are you carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders? “. This prompted a waterfall of tears. How did she know that was exactly how I was feeling?
The second was during a guided visualization by a yoga teacher during shavasana (when you lie still at the end of a yoga class). Once again, I began to cry uncontrollably. I knew something had to change.
It became clear to me that as soon as I got into my body, and became aware of my internal world, the true state of my being was unescapable – I was overwhelmed, wounded, stressed and traumatized. In short, I was Compassion Fatigued. Pen hovering over a contact renewal, my body “just said no”, and I left the job to start afresh somewhere else. Without going into too much detail, the following 10 years consisted of a rollercoaster of emotional states for me, from energized, to numbed out, to bitter, to despairing, to rejuvenated. How was I ever to get off? Was I going to have to leave the profession entirely? Continue to take medical leaves every few years? What else would I do? Is there anything else that would give the deep satisfaction that I experienced when helping others?
What I have since come to realize is that it is possible to find sustainable compassion satisfaction as a helping professional. But it requires self-awareness, vigilance, commitment to self-care, support of others and the ability to prioritize your own needs unapologetically (remember the oxygen mask analogy – always put yours on first before helping another with theirs).
First and foremost, however (and hence the title of the blog) is self-awareness. Constant checking in, or mindfulness of your internal state, is paramount in managing the shifting needs of a counsellor’s work. Need to open up energetically to increase your empathy and understanding of your client’s situation? Need to prepare yourself before meeting with a particularly angry or anxious client? Need to regulate your nervous system during the session as you adapt to changes in your client’s energy?
There are many different theories and approaches to managing the interplay of nervous systems and brain chemistries that play a part in the counselling process, though reviewing them is beyond the scope of this particular blog. The main point I am trying to make, and arguably the most fundamental piece of preventing Compassion Fatigue, is that only by monitoring yourself and addressing what you find accordingly will you continue to find the energy to enjoy doing the work you do. I will address how you can do this and also what you do with what you find in the next blog. For now, try to check in with yourself regularly – while in session, between sessions, at home, alone, with others; learning how to keep track of how we are really doing is a fundamental step towards sustainability as a helper. Honour your own self and you allow others to do the same.
Rothschild, B. & Rand, M.L. (2006) Help for the Helper: The Psychophysiology of Compassion Fatigue and Vicarious Trauma. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Gabor, M. (2004) When the Body Says No: The Cost of Hidden Stress. Toronto: Random House.
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA