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Posts tagged ‘compassion fatigue’

Are You On the Path to Burnout?

There’s a new study I want you all to read called Negotiating the Challenges of a Calling: Emotion and Enacted Sensemaking in Animal Shelter Work. According to the authors, animal shelter workers are typically on one of three “calling pathways”…and two of them lead straight to burnout.

I recommend you read this short article on the study, but here’s my quick recap of the three paths:

1. Identity-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals and you see yourself as having a special connection with animals. A big part of your identity is based on the belief that you are uniquely suited to caring for animals. You’re shocked by what you experience at the shelter, perceive challenges as a threat to your sense of self as being gifted with animals, and feel broken down by the work.

2. Contribution-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals and you see yourself as having special skills that will help the organization. A big part of your identity is based on your belief that you have valuable skills that are in short supply and can make a positive impact for a cause. You are shocked by the challenges at the shelter, perceive them as a threat to your sense of self as a talented contributor, and feel defeated by the work.

3. Practice-Oriented: You want to make a difference for animals. You don’t see yourself as uniquely gifted or talented, but you are just as passionate about working with animals as the other two. You have more realistic expectations of the work and perceive challenges as opportunities for learning. This empowers you and contributes to your belief that you have the capacity to grow and master new skills. You may feel fatigued, but are still happy and fulfilled by the work.

All three “paths” feel called to work with animals and all three feel negative emotions about the upsetting aspects of the work. But according to the study, the first two lead to burnout. Only the third path leads to fulfillment and engagement.

How come? The study goes into great detail about how we frame and make sense of challenges. But one way to consider the three paths is through Carol Dweck’s work on mindset.

Mindsets are the internal running accounts of what’s happening to us, what we think it means, and what we should do about it. We all have this going on in our minds and it frames and interprets every experience – every challenge we encounter.

The first two paths seem to be a “fixed” mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are fixed, static traits. They spend their time documenting and judging their skills. When a challenge at work occurs, failure is to be avoided at all costs, so they can maintain their identity as gifted or skilled. In an environment like an animal shelter, where conditions are never perfect, this means there will be lots of perceived “failure” and sense that one is never “good enough.”

The third path seems to be a “growth” mindset. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—skills and talent are only the starting point. When a challenge at work occurs, they see this as an opportunity to learn and improve their skills and talent. They’re focused less on proving themselves and more on developing themselves. And they believe others can learn and grow as well. This makes them more resilient to the challenges of working in an environment like an animal shelter.

I frequently get asked if there is a test that organizations can give during interviews to determine if someone would be a good fit for this emotionally challenging work. I would never base a hiring decision on one quiz, but I do think that there’s something to be said for recruiting staff who already have a growth mindset and therefore may be less judgmental (towards themselves and others) and more resilient to the inevitable challenges of the job.

The good news is that all of us can take steps to help ourselves (and our staff) to develop a growth mindset. We do this by becoming more aware of our running internal monologue and learning to challenge these thoughts, so that we can open up space for change and growth.

This is the foundation of my course Compassion in Balance. We can’t stop the challenges from coming our way, but through increased self-awareness, a willingness to explore new approaches, and deliberate practice we can learn how to manage them better and become more resilient in the process.

If you’d like to read the full study, which I hope you do, I’m happy to email a single copy to you (copyright prohibits me from sharing the full study here). Just email me.

p.s. if you’re wondering, I see myself in all three paths at different points in my career. I’m happy to report that, with practice, I’m walking that third pathway of growth and collaboration these days. How about you?

Compassion in Balance starts June 5th! 

See you in class,

Your Heart is Your Powerhouse

And I bet it’s working overtime these days. So many compassionate people I know, who already work so hard as helping professionals, have recently become even more engaged in service and activism work in a multitude of efforts to protect the people, animals, and environment we hold dear.

Self-care is more important than ever. Activism, just like animal welfare and care work, is a long game. If you want to keep going, you have to take care of your tools, starting with your heart.

Your heart is a muscle. It’s about the size of your two fists

It beats approximately 100,000 times in one day and about 35 million times in a year. Even at rest, the muscles of your heart are working hard – twice as hard as your leg muscles when you’re sprinting to the ice cream truck. You are so strong!

Figuratively speaking, your heart is just as powerful as your source of empathy, kindness, and compassion. Your role as a caregiver and healer is work of the heart – meaningful, connected, sensitive, and life-affirming. You are so loving!

All of this is to say, your heart is magnificent and essential. Please don’t forget to take care of your powerhouse, as you take care of the world.

Go to the doctor. I know you go to the veterinarian’s office every other day (I see you there!), but now it’s time for your annual physical exam. And while you’re at it, go to the dentist, since gum disease and heart disease are connected. Medical care is self-care.

Move your body. Exercise helps cuts your risk of heart disease, but it also helps you shake off the stress that builds up all day at work. I recently stumbled on this guy and I can’t stop laugh-dancing. That’s a thing, right? I dare you to do this with your co-workers the next time you feel like pulling your hair out.

Ground your work in something bigger than your anger. That’s a complicated one. I know. John Lewis helps me understand this idea of love in action better. And Desiree Adaway reminds me that if, “…we ground our work in joy, support, community, and security we will win.”

Sync your values. I bet most of you would consider compassion to be one of your core values. Many of you work in “humane” societies. But really: how humanely are you treating yourself? How much of that compassionate care are you offering yourself? You deserve and need just as much, if not more, love and care as you give to others.

Here’s some help in that area:

Self Care Flow Chart: for when you don’t know what to do, but you know you need to do something.

Finding Steady Ground: 7 behaviors to strengthen ourselves, so we can keep taking more and more powerful and strategic actions in the world, plus How to Get Out of a Cycle of Outrage.

The Modern Violence of Overwork: a short passage from Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk, and a powerful question from Parker Palmer, to read again and again.

This is What I Believe: Do no harm, take no shit, be real, don’t take it personally, and more brilliant inspiration.

with love,

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts Soon!

The next session of my course, Compassion Fatigue Strategies (CFS) through the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program, is about to begin and registration is now open!

The class launches on March 13th and runs through the first week of May.

CFS is a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. It’s designed to give you the space to learn about how to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in your life.

You do the work on your own time. There are live calls with me, but even those are recorded, so you’ll never miss a thing, no matter how busy you are.

Would you like to join me and a group of your peers for 8 weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions? Want to earn 15 CEUs? Think getting together for 4 live calls to practice stress reduction and mindfulness practices sounds good?

Sign up here!

 

 

I know you’re busy, but nothing will get better unless we tackle it. We can do it together. But I need you to make a commitment to yourself.

Can you give yourself about 2 hours a week (that’s 15-20 minutes a day) for 2 months to learn and explore practices that can support you for the rest of your career? Can you put yourself on your to-do list this spring?

Here’s what one CFS student shared on Facebook about her experience with the course in 2016:

“I just finished this course. It was very eye opening and worth every cent. I highly recommend it to anyone in the animal welfare industry.”

 

Here’s what another student had to say to me about not being sure about taking this class:

“I’m not the kind of person to readily discuss my feelings. I’m the kind of person who loves my job and wants to get my work done and do it well. I’ve gotten to the point in my career that I know this is an industry where I could work myself past the point of no return, whether that be burning out or leaving animal welfare entirely. But I came to this work because I love it. I just needed to figure out how to do it sustainably.

Jessica Dolce’s CFS class was recommended to me by a friend in the field and has been a great source of information, discussion, and the feeling you get when you realize you’re not alone. The work we do is insurmountable. It’s never ending. Sometimes it’s thankless. Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we started doing it in the first place. This course is approachable and self-paced. I am a terrible procrastinator, but I got it done and I’m glad I did.” – Shelter Medicine Veterinary Assistant, CFS alum

 

Do you want things to be different this year? Then let’s get you on a new path this spring!

Read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here.

 

See you this spring!

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts 9/19

The next session of my course, Compassion Fatigue Strategies (CFS) through the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program, is about to begin. The class launches on September 19th!

CFS is a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. It’s designed to give you the space to learn about how to manage the impact of compassion fatigue in your life.

Would you like to join me and a growing group of students for 8 weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions?  Want to earn 15 CEUs? Think getting together for 4 live calls to practice stress reduction and mindfulness practices sounds good?

Sign up here!

 

compassion fatigue strategies class testimonial

 

Here’s the simple truth: there is no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue.

But there are strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the complex work that you do which will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

You can learn how to take care of yourself, while you care for the world.

Students from past sessions have shared that the course helped them to feel empowered and to better prioritize their tasks, let go of work at the end of a shift, make more time for themselves and their personal lives, become more aware of their own emotions, mental states, and stress triggers, create healthier boundaries for themselves at work and at home, and much more.

If that sounds good to you, then I hope you’ll give yourself this class as a gift. Think of it as an investment in yourself.

I know you’re probably tired and busy. This may not be a great time to add something else to your schedule, but let’s be honest:

Nothing will change if you don’t carve out some time and energy to address how compassion fatigue is taking a toll on you and your work.

Can you give yourself about 2 hours a week (that’s 15-20 minutes a day) for 2 months to learn and explore practices that can support you for the rest of your career? Can you put yourself on your to-do list this fall?

Here’s what another student had to say about not being sure about taking this class:

“I’m not the kind of person to readily discuss my feelings. I’m the kind of person who loves my job and wants to get my work done and do it well. I’ve gotten to the point in my career that I know this is an industry where I could work myself past the point of no return, whether that be burning out or leaving animal welfare entirely. But I came to this work because I love it. I just needed to figure out how to do it sustainably.

Jessica Dolce’s CFS class was recommended to me by a friend in the field and has been a great source of information, discussion, and the feeling you get when you realize you’re not alone. The work we do is insurmountable. It’s never ending. Sometimes it’s thankless. Sometimes it’s hard to remember why we started doing it in the first place. This course is approachable and self-paced. I am a terrible procrastinator, but I got it done and I’m glad I did.” – Shelter Medicine Veterinary Assistant, CFS alum

 

Do you want things to be different in 2017? Then let’s get you on a new path this fall!

Read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here.

 

you got this,

Are You Thinking About Suicide? And Other Questions We’re Afraid To Ask

If so, call: 1-800-273-TALK

 
Please make the call.

Thoughts of suicide are often associated with a treatable mental disorder. These thoughts are common (you’re far, far from being alone) and do not have to be acted on. If you call the crisis hotline number above, you’ll speak with a trained counselor who can help connect you to local resources and professionals who want to help. It’s free, 24/7, and confidential. Please call. There’s only one of you in this world and we want you to stick around.

Talking about suicide can be hard. I’m wondering what all of you are feeling right now, as you read this, and it makes my chest tight. So many of us are suffering.

Let me ask you all something: How prepared are you to offer help to someone in emotional distress?

I think it’s safe to assume that many of us feel less than competent in this area. How often does that stop us from reaching out when someone needs us?

On the flip side, I’m totally incompetent when it comes to helping people with physical medical problems, but if I saw someone on the street having a heart attack or a friend accidentally cut themselves, I would still offer assistance even though I really wasn’t sure what to do.

I bet a lot of you are the same. Even if we couldn’t remember how to do CPR or how to dress a wound, most of us would still reach out to someone having a physical medical emergency. We might offer a reassuring word, bust out the first aid kit, or call 911.

But what about when our friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers are suffering from a mental health emergency or are in emotional distress? A lot of us just keep our heads down. Not because we’re bad people, but because we don’t understand mental health issues. We don’t know what to do. We might worry that we’ll make things worse than they already are.

Luckily, there’s something we can do about this. This winter I earned my certificate in Mental Health First Aid through NAMI Maine. The full day training, developed by the National Council for Behavioral Health is offered internationally and helps everyday people learn how to effectively respond to individuals who are in psychological distress.

This is a training we should all take, no matter what we do for a living.

Consider this:

  • One in five Americans experience a mental disorder in any one year.
  • More than half of all adults in America will experience a mental disorder in their lifetime.

It’s highly likely that we will encounter someone (ourselves included) in need of mental health help at some point. So why not ditch the shame, clear up the confusion, and shed the stigma that surrounds mental health? Let’s get informed. We can learn the risk factors and warning signs for mental health and addiction concerns, strategies for how to help someone in both crisis and non-crisis situations, and where to turn for help.

Working in a helping profession requires intense emotional labor. All of us are impacted, in varying degrees, by the stress, trauma, and suffering we bear witness to every day. Sometimes it’s really serious:

1 in 6 veterinary professionals have considered suicide.

If you suspect someone may be at risk for suicide, it’s important to ask directly about suicidal thoughts.

DON’T avoid using the word “suicide.” You’re not planting the idea in their mind if you do.
DO ask the question without dread and without expressing a negative judgement.
DO be direct:

Are you having thoughts of suicide?
Are you thinking about killing yourself?

Letting people know that you care and want to help can make a major difference. Be sure to have information and resources available if they need assistance.

In the First Aid course, we learned a handy acronym to help guide us through the process of reaching out to anyone in distress (which includes panic attacks, addiction, depression, and self harm):

mental health action plan

In order to move towards the last 3 steps, we need to get educated. Here are some ways to learn more right now:

Learn the signs, what you can do to help, and more myths about suicide.

More on suicide prevention here.

Always have this number nearby: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

You can also watch the free VetGirl webinar: Suicide in Veterinary Medicine

I highly recommend this Mental Health First Aid training for all of us, but especially for people in management and leadership roles. Your staff and the public you work with (who are also in distress some of the time) need you to know this kind of basic first aid for a variety of common mental health problems.

If you would like to get trained in Mental Heath First Aid, please visit this page.

 

What Happened When I Couldn’t Complain for 5 Days

My native language is complaining. I’m also fluent in Bitching, Moaning, Whining, and I speak a passable Kvetching.

So, when a boatload of articles about the negative impact of complaining started coming across my path this year, I tuned in. Essentially, every article was some variation on this theme: complaining keeps us in a negative mindset, feeling like victims, and trains us to be hyper alert to noticing the bad in any situation. Complaining may feel good for a moment, but long term it leaves us feeling worse.

Francoise Mathieu, author of The Compassion Fatigue Workbook, refers to bitching, moaning, and whining (the BMWs) as a “fake workout.”

In other words, complaining is the equivalent of sitting on the couch watching someone else workout on TV. At the end, you’re exactly the same as you were before you watched.

Complaining is the same – we feel like we’re doing something because we’re actively talking and discharging energy – but in the end, there are no real results. You may even feel worse.

In many workplaces (and I am mega-guilty of this) complaining becomes the primary way that we communicate with and connect to one another.

Truth is, there’s a lot to complain about in our work and the state of the world. But there’s a difference between taking action to make things better (which includes healthy coping through supportive conversations) and the false sense of action or release that we get from complaining.

One gets results, the other trains us to keep focusing on what’s broken and sucks the life out of us.

Focus on solving or coping with the problem instead.

When complaining is our primary way of experiencing and communicating about the world, it’s like our mind gets stuck tuned into one toxic radio station run by a troll.

Let’s call it WSUXS (thanks for the inspiration Anne Lamott!).

Not too long ago, I went on a 5 day silent meditation retreat. This meant no talking or direct eye contact with other people was allowed. Silent meals, silent meditation, silent everything…except inside your own head. It’s really loud in your own mind.

As if that’s not hard enough, I soon discovered that my room was directly across from the communal bathrooms and I was kept awake half the night by noise coming from across the hall.

That’s when WSUXS started broadcasting loud and clear.

“Why can’t people close the door more quietly?” “Why did I get this crappy room?” “This isn’t fair.” “Is that sewage I smell?”  “I never should have come here.” “Meditation is dumb.” “This SUCKS.”

I found myself physically aching to complain to the woman who was staying in the room next to me, knowing she was likely experiencing the same nightly torture.

For two days I had imaginary conversations in my head with my neighbor about the noise and our stinky rooms. But I wasn’t allowed to talk to her. I couldn’t even make eye contact with her as we walked into our adjoining rooms – no eye roll with a knowing head tilt towards the bathroom.

At night, I found myself having imaginary conversations with my husband and friends. They’d ask me how the retreat went and I’d tell them about the bathrooms! How gross, they’ll say. So disappointing, they’ll commiserate. Vindication!

And then something weird happened. Two days of WSUXS and I couldn’t take it anymore.

Not the bathrooms…

I couldn’t stand my own negative thoughts for one more minute.

I was boring myself. I was making myself miserable.

I didn’t want this unique experience that I was having at the retreat to be defined by my complaints.

So I decided to stop.

Thanks to my mindfulness practices, every time I became aware that WSUXS was coming on in my head, I noticed it, acknowledged it with an inner smile (Hello again you old crank!), and then I turned the volume down by placing my attention on something else, like my breath.

By day three WSUXS was just static in the background. I hardly heard it anymore.

Nothing changed externally. The bathrooms still stunk. I still had a hard time sleeping.

But internally, I was changing the way I was relating to my experience, letting go of what I couldn’t change or fix, so that I could be at peace.

I was able to do this to a large degree because I didn’t speak my complaints out loud. I did not feed the troll.

If I had been able to talk to my neighbor, we would have turned up the dial on WSUXS to 11 and blown the roof off of that place. The complaint, and the negative energy within it, would have grown stronger as we discussed it.

But since we couldn’t talk about it, we didn’t feed energy into and it faded away without sucking us dry.

What I learned in my five days of silence is that where we place our focus – our attention – is also where our energy will go. And that really matters. It shapes our entire lives. If we’re always looking for and talking about what sucks, then that will define our experience.

Our life becomes a WSUXS marathon. 

Now, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t things worth getting upset about or that we should bottle up our feelings. But there’s constructive talk where you feel upset about an issue, policy, or person’s behavior and then you either take action to address that issue directly with the person who is responsible or you cope with your feelings in a healthy way. And then there’s complaining as a primary way to discharge your discomfort, but which ultimately leads to little change and a whole lot of toxicity.

This is especially true at work. We complain and feed into that negative energy, which only reinforces our focus on what’s going wrong, rather than what we will do to change it, let go of it, or what’s also going well.

The more we talk about it, the more power we give the complaint and the more we wire our brains to see everything through the lens of WSUXS.

So what can you do?

Mathieu writes in her book Compassion Fatigue Workbook, that she and a couple of friends at work deliberately decided to stop gossiping and complaining about work for 3 months. She reports that the, “…results were striking. We were not necessarily successful at changing our dysfunctional workplace, but we were no longer part of the toxicity and that significantly improved my work experience.”

Lauren Glickman wrote a great article about experimenting with going complaint-free for Animal Sheltering magazine. You can check that out here.

Turning down the dial on complaining is one way you can improve the quality of your life right now, even if things are far from ideal. As Trauma Stewardship author, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, wrote, “Nothing has to change in the world for us to transform our own life experience.”

nothing has to change

 

More on this topic:

How to Complain Less

Why Complaining is Literally Killing You

What It’s Like to Go Without Complaining for a Month

 

Finally, you have the power to make small, but meaningful changes that can improve the quality of your life, no matter what’s going on at work. Really. I know there are so many issues that need to be fixed, policies that need to be changed, people that need to behave differently, and resources that need to be increased! And yet, even if none of those external factors change, you can still transform your own life experience. My online course, Compassion in Balance, is designed to help people who work with animals improve quality of their lives and reduce the impact of compassion fatigue. Join us!

 

Flip the Script: I Could Never Do Your Job, I Love Animals Too Much

“What do you do?”

“I work at an animal shelter.”

“I could never work at a shelter. I love animals too much.” 

“Please go away now.”

 

Every single person who works in an animal shelter has had someone say this to them. All of us.

It’s what people say in response to hearing what line of work we’re in. They’re not thinking about what they’re saying and my bet is that they don’t mean to hurt our feelings.

But they do.

In every workshop I give, every class I teach, and in some recent research I was a part of through the Shelter Medicine program at UF (more on that soon), this one phrase comes up again and again.

It pisses you off. It hurts your feelings. It’s lodged in your brains.

 

That’s because when someone says:

I could never do your job. I love animals too much. 

We hear:

If you can do that work, you must not love animals as much as I do. 

 

Of course, that’s bananas. The people who work in animals shelters love animals more than the average person.

That’s why we’re willing to put ourselves out there to help them in their time of need. That’s why we keep showing up to work in difficult conditions where the limited resources rarely meet the needs. It’s why, when necessary, we’re willing to walk with them in their final moments, letting animals know that they are are seen and loved, as they leave the world.

We love animals more than anyone! We know this. You know this. Truly, you do.

So why does this silly remark tweak so many of us so badly? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard this phrase cited as a contributor to our compassion fatigue.

Let’s break it down:

On one hand, we get upset because that comment reveals how little the general public understands the complex work that we do. Also, as the late, great Rodney Dangerfield said, we don’t get no respect.

Is that stressful? Yeah it is.

On the other hand, we also get upset because we’re telling ourselves a story about what we think the other person means.

We interpret what they say through filters based on our own individual experiences and perceptions. Some of those experiences may include having been harshly criticized for euthanizing animals or for having to charge money for our services. It may also include our own mixed feelings about the work that we do (mixed feelings, including guilt, are really normal) and how we’re being affected by it.

We take this comment very personally. But if  you think about how we’re all being told the exact same thing, it really isn’t personal at all!

As with many things in life, including work, when we take things personally like this we add a thick layer of optional suffering onto that annoying, but ultimately harmless, comment.

Remember: meaning is co-created.

Since we can’t control what other people say or do, we can focus on what we can control: our end of the conversation. We can choose the stories we tell ourselves about what other people say and do. We can change our interpretation, so that it feels better for us. Let me explain.

 

I could never work in a shelter

 

Even when I was at my worst stages of compassion fatigue it didn’t hurt my feelings when people said this me:

I could never work at a shelter. I love animals too much.

Because for some reason, that I take no credit for, my filters allowed me to hear it this way:

I’m not strong enough to do that work. I don’t know how I’d survive it. 

 

I perceived the comment as a reflection of them and the nature of the work (it is hard!). It had almost nothing to do with me. But, if it did have anything to do with me, I chose to interpret it as a compliment.

As in:

I’m not strong enough to do that work, but you are. 

 

Believe me, I get how you could hear the first way. But let’s be honest. We know that’s not what most people really mean.

OK, some insensitive or judgmental people might actually mean that they love animals more than you, but who cares what they think? If they’re not willing to get in the arena and do the work with you, then they’re just critics.

Thank you Brené Brown for the book and Theodore Roosevelt for this:

 

critic arena daring greatly

 

Most people simply mean that they care about animals and they don’t know how they’d cope with all the pain and suffering. That’s legit.

Could they say something better? Sure! They could say:

“I love animals so much, but I don’t think I’m brave enough to do that work. Thank goodness there are strong, compassionate bad asses like you that choose to step up.”

Or just something simple like:

“Wow, that’s tough. Thank you for your service.”

And then you can say:

“Thanks for appreciating what I do. It’s really hard, but you know what makes it easier? Donations.”

Then ask them to write your shelter or rescue or clinic a check.

 

So the next time someone says they couldn’t do what you do because they love animals too much, just smile.

Practice the fine art of compassionate badassery: know who you are, what you value, why you do this hard, but deeply meaningful work, and then choose not to get rattled by other people’s comments.

Choose to hear it as a compliment instead. Choose to spin the story in whatever way lifts you up or, at the minimum, doesn’t make your eyelid twitch.

In fact, go ahead and choose to interpret anything that comes across your plate as being less personal, less insulting, less intentionally menacing, and way more neutral or benign.

Doing that isn’t for anyone else’s benefit (though it will benefit others). It’s a freebie you can throw yourself so that you suffer less.  And wouldn’t that be nice?

The work is hard enough as it is. Flip that script so that it hurts less and serves you better!

 

 Thank you for your service. You guys are the best

xo,

 

 

New Session of Compassion in Balance Starts June 6th!

CiB, my compassion fatigue course for people who work with animals, begins on June 6th, 2016!

 

I hope you’ll join us this summer as we tackle compassion fatigue in animal welfare work.

But first let’s be honest: there is no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue. There are, however, a number of strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the work that will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

You can learn how to take care of yourself, while you care for the world.

 

compassion in balance online class photo

 

 

Students from my past classes have shared that the course helped them to feel empowered to set limits, better prioritize their tasks, let go of work at the end of a shift, make more time for themselves and their personal lives, become more aware of their own emotions, mental states, and stress triggers, create healthier boundaries for themselves at work and at home, and much more.

Heather, a volunteer with a rescue, recently wrote to tell me how CiB has changed her life:

“The class helped so much! I learned so many simple, helpful things and decided to form small new habits that have ended up making a huge impact on my mental state. Now I take breaks to breathe, eat, walk and play with my dogs. No matter what is going on, I take breaks now. And I am learning to say NO without feeling terrible (sometimes I say “no” and I feel joy welling up as I say it!) and I feel proud of myself afterward. I’ve also stopped working until 3am because I need boundaries and sleep! These are just a handful of the ways the class has helped me. There are many more!”

 

And guess what? Heather didn’t even finish the whole class! She got that out of doing about half of the course modules. Pretty neat, huh?

nothing has to change

 

Metis, founder and volunteer of a 501c3 animal welfare non-profit had this to say about her experience with CiB this past fall:

“Compassion in Balance is the first compassion fatigue class I really “got”. I have taken workshops and seminars about the topic before, but Jessica’s experience in animal welfare and her easy going, humorous writing style really helped me understand compassion fatigue and how to address it in my life.

I suggest this course to anyone and everyone in a caring profession who wants to sustain a long and healthy career. Compassion fatigue might not seem like an issue to you yet – if not, consider the class preventative. If your feeling burned out, spend some time learning coping skills and strategies that will help you learn how to be happy while doing the work you love.”

If that sounds good to you, then I hope you’ll give yourself this class as a gift. Think of CiB as an investment in yourself.  You can enroll here. 

I know how busy and tired you are. This summer may not be the perfect time to add something else to your schedule, but let’s be honest: Nothing will change unless you change it.

You don’t have to be a victim to the circumstances you find yourself in at work. You can make simple, yet powerful changes in your life that will allow you to be well, while you do good in the world. Compassion in Balance can help you do that.

You can read more about the class and what other students had to say about it over here. 

I hope you’ll join us this summer!

with love,

The Dark Side of Empathy: When Too Much Turns Into None

“I had never been told that empathy is a finite resource. You can run out. As a normal, psychological response, you cannot give of yourself again and again and again without replenishing.”

Emmett Fitzgerald

We need to have a talk about empathy. People who work in helping professions tend to have big old hearts. We’re a naturally sensitive and empathetic bunch. Our ability to feel what another being is feeling is part of what drew us to the work we do.

It makes us great at our jobs, but empathetic engagement is also what contributes to compassion fatigue. In a nutshell:

Excessive empathy can lead to a lack of empathy. Too much can turn into not enough.

Kristin Neff, PhD helps explain why: “Empathy can be defined as emotional resonance — feeling what others are feeling. Our brains actually have specialized mirror neurons designed for this purpose. Mirror neurons evolved to help us quickly know if someone is friend or foe by registering their feelings such as anger or friendliness in our own bodies…The problem for caregivers is that when we’re in the presence of suffering, we feel it in our own bodies.”

With our mirror neurons firing all day long – feeling and absorbing the stress, fear, and sadness of the animals and people around us –  we can start to feel flooded and overwhelmed. It may seem as if we’re soaking in suffering.

Here’s the thing: the emotions of others are contagious. If our empathetic “immune system” isn’t robust, then the boundaries between ourselves and those we serve may become very blurry. And at some point, we may not be able to feel the difference between what someone else is experiencing and what is happening in our own bodies. We feel it all.

Where do we end and where does the other being begin?

This boundary can be especially hard to find for those of us that work with populations who are defenseless: children, animals, the environment. Laura van Dernoot Lipsky writes in Trauma Stewardship, “When we speak for animals or creatures or environments that are unable to speak for themselves, we may gradually lose the ability to distinguish their voices from our own. If we don’t pay careful attention, our feelings of identification and responsibility may increase to the point that we experience their anguish in a debilitating way. In the long run, this can diminish our ability to be effective advocates.”

If we are excessively empathetic, it’ll feel like out system is being totally overwhelmed by what’s happening around us. There were many days at the animal shelter where I felt like a walking open wound.

To protect ourselves, many of us start pushing our feelings away, shutting down, and numbing out. It feels like the only way to survive.

Gradually we may discover we’ve lost the ability to empathize with others (both at work and in our personal lives). This lack of empathy is actually a very common symptom of compassion fatigue in experienced caregivers.

run out of empathy

 

As we hit the limits of our empathy, without finding a way to recharge and care for ourselves, we become desensitized. We minimize the pain and suffering of others. We stop listening and change the subject. We tune out. We become indifferent.

Instead of feeling everything, we no longer feel much of anything.

“It’s as if you’re a sponge that is completely saturated and has never been wrung out. You can only take so much.” – from Trauma Stewardship

If you’re new to the work, it may seem like lacking empathy could never happen to you. I get it.

Years ago at the shelter, I was assisting in the euthanasia of a dog that I was very attached to. To say that I had excessive empathy for this particular dog would be an understatement. I was weeping during the euthanasia. This stressed out the dog and we needed to call in a third person, so I could step aside from restraining him. The woman who came into assist had been on the job for many, many years.

Embarrassed, I apologized to her for crying. She took one look at my face, slick with tears, and said, “I wish I could still feel that way. I can’t remember the last time I cried.”

Today I recognize that her numbness was a normal and predictable sign of compassion fatigue. She had once cared very, very much. But back then I was shocked. I honestly had no idea what she meant. I was overwhelmed by emotions.

I wanted to feel less. She wanted to feel more.

We were both struggling to find a healthy middle ground where we could engage empathetically, but without causing harm to others or ourselves.

Neither of us had found the sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement –  a compassionate detachment –  where we’re not numb or aloof to the suffering of others, but we’re also not flooded with their pain either.

In this way, we can still take caring action to help others, but we suffer a little less. It’s a bit more compassion, a little less empathy: Read more about the difference between empathy and compassion here.

I have a feeling some of you may be wondering if being numb is really such a bad thing. Who wants to feel the painful stuff? The problem is that losing our empathy, to the point that we’re numb, will have a negative impact on our work.

While it can be a very healthy coping strategy to put strong emotions aside in the moment, so we can do a difficult aspect of our job, we can’t stay detached all the time. 

Without empathy we can no longer care for our clients and patients effectively and ethically.

We may wind up dismissing their needs, minimizing their pain, becoming rigid in our thinking, silencing their stories, withdrawing from clients and coworkers, cutting corners, and making unethical decisions.

Not to mention, our stuffed down negative emotions will find their way out in other unpleasant ways. The pressure will keep building until we explode or get sick. Ever freak out at someone you love over nothing? Start weeping at a soup commercial? Always have a cold? You get the idea.

So what helps?

We can work (and it is ongoing, proactive work) to find the optimal level of empathic engagement where we are still connected to those we serve, but we’re not losing touch with our own body and emotions.

To figure out the healthiest empathetic response means we have to determine the wisest approach in any given moment (this requires flexibility). One where we still feel warm and caring, but without taking on others’ stories and feelings as if they are our own. We recognize there is a boundary between us.

To do this we use healthy coping skills to help us manage what we’re bearing witness to and absorbing every day.

Start with kindness for yourself. Take a break. Explore mindful breathing and physical exercise to help let go of some of the energetic pain you’ve been soaking up. Reach out to a supportive person or professional who can help you begin to process and release your feelings.

One powerful way to help ourselves is to explore practices that teach us how to feel more stable in the face of great pain. Yoga and meditation, along with other contemplative and creative practices, help us learn how to be present in the moment and feel grounded in our own bodies, which enables us to more skillfully tackle overwhelming circumstances at work.

Humanitarian aid worker Marianne Elliot writes about how this helps her find equanimity:

“One of the most dreadful things about this work is that you’re confronted by a need that is much greater than your capacity…often there was so little that you could do….But yoga helped me in learning to just sit. Sit with all this suffering and bring presence to it…And I feel that it was really with my meditation practice through yoga that I was able to do that without being overwhelmed by the pain, or feeling like I’d have an impulse to withdraw.”

We still feel pain of course. This work is so hard. Rather than judge ourselves or stuff our pain down, we can offer ourselves self-compassion in response to this recognition that we too are suffering.

Dr. Neff goes on to say, “The implication for caregivers is that we need to generate lots of compassion — for both ourselves and the person we’re caring for — in order to remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, sometimes we may need to spend the bulk of our attention on giving ourselves compassion so that we have enough emotional stability to be there for others.”

This practice of self-compassion and care can help us become well enough to access that sweet spot of healthy empathetic engagement.

We can’t do it alone though. Organizations must also take steps to help their workers. This might include making sure that particularly draining and difficult tasks, such as euthanasia, are rotated, so that no one person has to shoulder this alone, providing regular breaks to recharge, and giving employees a constructive outlet to discuss and let go of work through weekly debriefing and/or support groups.

No matter where we are on the empathy continuum – too much or too little – we can take steps to help ourselves move towards that center line. By forming healthy boundaries and committing to proactive, authentic self-care, we can regularly boost our empathetic immune system.

It’s a long road, but every step taken in the direction of that healthy expression of empathy will help change how it impacts you and build your resilience, allowing you to find some balance in this difficult, but deeply meaningful work that we’re privileged to do.

 

You don’t have to figure this out alone. Take a look at my online classes. They exist so you can be well, while you do good work in the world. A new session of Compassion in Balance starts June 6th!

with love and gratitude,

Compassion Fatigue Strategies Course Starts 2/1!

Last summer I teamed up with the University of Florida’s Maddie’s® Shelter Medicine Program to launch Compassion Fatigue Strategies a four module, online, self-paced class for people who work with animals. And guess what?

A new session of the course starts on February 1st, 2016!

 

More than 60 animal care and welfare professionals showed up last session to learn about how they could manage the impact of compassion fatigue in their lives. Through weeks of thoughtful, honest, and courageous discussions, we were able to create a truly special learning experience together.

 compassion fatigue strategies class testimonial

 

Class kicks off again soon and while there’s no magic pill or quick fix for compassion fatigue, there are strategies, tools, resources, and new ways of thinking about the work that will help you transform how compassion fatigue is impacting your life.

You can learn how to take care of yourself, while you care for the world.

Students from last summer’s session have shared that the course helped them to better prioritize their tasks, let go of work at the end of a shift, make more time for themselves and their personal lives, become more aware of their own emotions, mental states, and stress triggers, create healthier boundaries for themselves at work and at home, and much more.

If that sounds good to you, then I hope you’ll give yourself this class as a gift. Think of it as an investment in yourself.

I know you’re beyond busy and this may not be a great time to add something else to your schedule, but let’s be honest:

Nothing will change if you don’t carve out some time and energy to address how compassion fatigue is taking a toll on you and your work.

There will never be a perfect time to take this class. The to-do list will never be done. But if you want to stay in this work for the long haul, doing ethical, effective work and feel better while you do it, then you’ll have to make time to create something new for yourself.

 

Can you give yourself about 2 hours a week (that’s 15-20 minutes a day) to learn and explore practices that can support you for the rest of your career? Can you put yourself on your to-do list this winter?

You can read more about the class and what the students had to say about it here. And if you’re wondering how this course is different than my other online class, Compassion in Balance, check this comparison chart out.

Or tune in for a few minutes to the video below and I’ll tell you why I think you should take the class this winter.

Hint: it has a lot to do with 2017.

 

 

Ready to make a change? Register Here!

 

See you in class,