Compassion fatigue is something that I didn't even understand or know about until the last few years since I've become much more knowledgeable about trauma-informed practices and things that we can do in the classroom. So, I have experienced compassion fatigue. As a matter of fact, I am actually experiencing it right now, which is what made me think of blogging about compassion fatigue. It is the stretch between Thanksgiving and Christmas and we are still in the global COVID-19 pandemic. As a leader, I am dealing with so much right now as are so many of you.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Compassion fatigue is the phrase used to describe what people who are in caring professions experience when they care for people who have had traumatic experiences. The more you help, empathize, and support these people you can actually feel the trauma yourself, it can also be called secondary trauma or vicarious trauma. Believe it or not, I would say that right now every educator is facing this because of coronavirus; this pandemic is trauma.
What is Trauma?
I try to explain trauma as what's trauma to one person might not necessarily be trauma to another person. What I might be able to handle might not be what somebody else is able to handle. When I first heard the word trauma I was thinking more as a medical term, like a traumatic physical injury. Trauma can be any number of things and they come in many different shapes and forms. With regard to our students, we refer to traumas they experience before the age of 18 as Adverse Childhood Experiences or commonly phrased ACES. These can be homelessness, somebody who in your family has been incarcerated, it could be abuse, it could be not having enough food. So, a pandemic or the pandemic that we are currently in is definitely a traumatic experience for all of us.
How Do I Know If I Have Compassion Fatigue?
So as we lead our organizations and we lead our people and our students and their families, we absolutely can have (and likely have) compassion fatigue. Here are some signs that you can be suffering from compassion fatigue: are you exhausted, do you feel like you can't get out of bed, are you feeling like you're just so emotional that you could cry, and/or you don't know where to start. All of these things could be signs of compassion fatigue. For me, I experience the worst tiredness, more tired than under normal circumstances. As I mentioned I am having compassion fatigue right now. We are back to 100% virtual which is a little tricky for me with childcare issues and running my organization. I called my husband and asked him to come home early to give me a break. I actually was so exhausted that I took a nap! Now I knew I probably should have gotten on my sneakers and taken a walk but instead I laid down for 30 minutes and just rested. Taking that time to just turn off and rest made me feel better. I was able to finish my work tasks and be present for my family in a way I wouldn’t have been able to if I didn’t reset.
What Can I do If I am Experiencing Compassion Fatigue?
The first thing is to acknowledge your feelings and be aware and understand why you're feeling this way, honor your feelings don’t just brush them off. In order to do this, you need to explore your thoughts, your feelings, your behaviors, and even the things that you're doing. You want to reflect on your own experiences as you're dealing with emotionally draining circumstances and figure out what skills you can use to help manage them. As leaders, we have this enormous responsibility for the people in our organization and the people we serve. So we really need to figure out how we're going to manage all of those situations. We also have to be careful that we are caring for the caregivers and not just ourselves. So, when you're feeling this way when you're feeling compassion fatigue, you need to think about what you need.
Hopefully, you already have some sort of a self-care regimen. I've read somewhere that if you take a hot bath with Epsom salt that the magnesium helps relieve stress and tension. I’ve incorporated that into my self-care things when I have compassion fatigue. Exercise also really helps. I know sometimes it's like the last thing we want to think about when we are exhausted but it really absolutely helps. What about music? Do you like music? Music tends to help me. Is there a show you like to watch? My husband and I watch Caribbean life and we talk about where we're going to go to the Caribbean. Some escapism is not necessarily a bad thing once in a while. Some people really enjoy writing, writing in journals can even be a form of meditation or mindfulness. I believe in mindfulness and meditation so much that we actually have it in our day for our students to help with self-regulation, it helps the students and the adults.
Is there a special place you like to go to visit as a getaway? Now it doesn't have to be anything major. Lake Ontario is not far from my school. Last year I was struggling with something and I got in my car, and I drove to the lake, and I just sat there and I felt a lot better. For me, the water has always been a soothing calming place. So when you're feeling exhausted and you have this compassion fatigue, I don't want you to say what's wrong with me. You need to shift your perspective and say what's happened in the last couple of days that's made me feel this way.
As you check in with yourself, the other to be aware of is compassion fatigue, with your staff. Specifically, your social-emotional staff your social workers, your assistant principals, deans, your principals, your nurse, anybody who's dealing with families and the issues of families. As educators, most of us are in this career because we are just so mission driven that we want to get out there and do everything we can for our families, but we have to be careful that it's not at the cost to us and our own families. If we don't mitigate compassion fatigue it can be significant, it can impact relationships, it can impact home life, it can impact work life. It’s critical to really understand what compassion fatigue is and understand how to address compassion fatigue.
I mentioned the antidote to compassion fatigue is self-care it's regular self-care, it's not just self-care when you are hysterically crying because you just can't take another thing. It's regular self-care, so that you know each day you're doing something to care for yourself. If you regularly practice self-care, the cumulative effect of compassion fatigue will not get to a high enough level where it's impacting you in a significant, negative way.
If as you read this you identified with some or all of what I wrote then please take time to care for yourself. You could very likely be experiencing compassion fatigue RIGHT NOW. Care for yourself, care for your staff, and care for your community.
All my best,
In Friendship, Love, and Leadership,