In order to raise your voice for others, you have to take care of yourself first. That’s where self care comes in. If you like this tip, be sure to sign up for the Raise Your Voice newsletter to receive your copy of The Revolution Starts with Me! self care zine for more tips and self care resources.
If you work in social services (or, as we like to call it, “the helping professions”), volunteer to help out underserved communities, are a caregiver to a loved one, or deal with humans on a daily basis, you may experience what’s known as compassion fatigue. According to Dr. Lou Kavar, compassion fatigue is a condition that involves a gradual lessening of compassion when you are tasked with caring for someone on a routine basis without taking time out for yourself. Often referred to as “burn-out”, compassion fatigue can affect your physical, psychological, and spiritual health.
We run the risk of developing compassion fatigue when we choose to do everything on our own without asking for help, when we aren’t able to say NO to a request on our time, and when we are exposed to the traumatic sharing of life experiences that others (including clients) share with us.
This last piece is particularly important because, in our interactions with the world, we constantly seek ways to relate and to empathize. Relation and empathy is what connects us with others. It exposes us to human conditions we may not be exposed to in our own lives.
As a social worker, I’ve had many incidences in which I’ve taken the stories of my clients home with me. Hours later, I would still dwell on what I could have done differently, or how the trauma of sharing her/his story affected both myself and my clients. Even as an activist, I have become weighed down with the demands of the communities I’m advocating for. It’s always a great feeling when you’re able to connect with a client, community member, student, peer, or family member’s plight, but it can often come at the cost of becoming overwhelmed with their life circumstances.
There’s nothing wrong with caring for others. The key is in developing a balance between showing compassion for others while also showing that same level of compassion for ourselves. Here are some ways to work through compassion fatigue:
*Take an “rejuvenation” moment or day, when you can: Some refer to this as a taking a “mental health day”. Call out of work. Don’t go to class. Cancel your plans. Be alone or spend time with others to re-energize. If calling out, missing class, or being away for an extended period of time is not an option, take 5-10 minute breaks throughout the day. Get away from class or the office, and walk around. Go someplace quiet, like a bookstore, the park or even a bathroom stall, to collect yourself.
*Utilize your “breathe” supports: This idea is from the University of Buffalo School of Social Work. Your “breathe” supports are people who can recognize when you are feeling worried or stressed, and who you can rely on to let you know when a break is in order. Learn how to identify your breathe supports here.
*Get feedback & work together: If most of your fatigue is experienced while on the job, ask for feedback from your co-workers or your supervisor on how to deal with certain types of individuals or situations that occur among the population you work with. If you’re in an environment that encourages having team members, ask for a team member to carry out a task for you while you step away or handle a smaller task.
*Talk things out: Schedule a counseling session with a healthcare professional. Speak with the human resources department of your office to see if an employee assistance program is available for staff members. EAPs often allot a number of free sessions with a licensed clinical provider. If you’re a student, seek out the counseling services on your campus. There are also community clinics and teaching hospitals that offer free or low-cost therapy, or on a sliding scale fee. You can find them courtesy of the National Association of Free & Charitable Clinics. You can also seek out spiritual counseling from your place of worship.