Those in the helping professions are at risk of compassion fatigue and compassion burnout. Compassion fatigue is when we are finding ourselves at a lower energy and engagement level than is typical for us. In effect we are dragging ourself through our life, particularly at work. This is a shorter-term condition and can be reversed fairly easily if recognized early.
Compassion burnout is a cumulative impact following extensive time in compassion fatigue. This reveals itself after we have been struggling with managing the emotional drain of constantly and consistently being available to and offering help to those in need.
Compassion fatigue and compassion burnout can be lessened, and their effects reversed, by developing personal boundaries while spiritually and emotionally rejuvenating using some specific practices.
Developing Boundaries and Balance
We can begin turning around compassion fatigue by balancing how much we invest of ourselves in our client or patient’s life events. It is common for those of us in the “helping professions” (i.e., medical personnel, educators, first responders, and more) to hold soft boundaries between other’s issues and our life.
In other words, we take in too much of the client’s tragedy than is good, or healthy, for us. Their life struggles become akin to our life struggles. Taking in this quantity of other’s suffering overwhelms our emotional and psychological systems.
80-20 Balance of Life Energy
I intend to maintain a balance between my life issues and my client or student’s life issues. I aim to maintain a balance of 80 percent of my awareness internally and, at most, 20 percent directly engaged with the other’s struggles. I imagine a few of you are recoiling slightly from the 80-20 split of awareness. You may be inclined to think that making available 20 percent of your awareness for a client’s struggles will leave the client feeling “short-changed.” In fact, if we truly keep the 80-20 rule in place, we will find we have more energy and capacity to be with another’s suffering while maintaining our inner balance with greater inner resources.
It’s interesting when we initially check in with our boundary supporting our reserving enough inner energy for ourselves, we can often know what percentage we keep for ourselves. I expect most of you will find you have, at most, 20 percent reserved for your own processing and life events and are investing a minimum of 80 percent with your students or patients.
When you are alone, see what it is like to hold back 80 percent of your energy, life force, and offer another up to 20 percent. Typically, you will feel more grounded, more present, with great resources available to you. Rather than withholding life force with your clients, you are full enough with your 80 percent that you can regularly offer another the 20 percent. In other words, because you are nourishing yourself by maintaining the 80 percent life force energy you can more easily extend the 20 percent to others.
The Fullness of Inner Experience
Another easier strategy to balance our stress and burnout is to check into the fullness of our inner experience.
Typically, if we are suffering—“I have no energy to listen to one more person’s troubles”—we only see and rest in the suffering. It can be very skillful to check within and see what else is here. It is extremely rare for us to have only one experience or feeling at any time. When we check in and ask “What else is here?” we can experience a fuller spectrum of our experience.
As an example, I was working with a client who was feeling overwhelmed and completely depleted of energy. I asked her, “Where do you feel the exhaustion in your body?”. She replied she “felt depleted in her head, belly, and weakness in her arms.” I had her feel into those areas with greater clarity. When she had significant contact with those areas of her body, I asked her “What else can you sense right here in your body?” After a minute or two she said, “I am feeling joy, ease, peacefulness, and excitement.” That shocked her!
You can see from this example when we are strictly focused on a few areas of our experience we are overlooking other feelings or felt states. By being in touch with more than the weakness of fatigue, my client was able to be with joy and ease while she simultaneously was with her fatigue and exhaustion. It instantly afforded her greater inner resources to be with what was draining to her.
This is another resource you can use to find inner resources to be with challenging feelings.
Innate Goodness Meditation to Engage Your Inner Buoyancy
Typically, when we are appreciated for our goodness it relates, nearly exclusively, to instances when we behaved as another desired. Our parents, teachers, colleagues, or partner show their appreciation for us when we “do” something they like. While this appreciation can feel momentarily satisfying, it ultimately fades quickly because we are being seen and valued for what we “do,” not who we “are.”
Interestingly we can feel the difference between being appreciated for who we are and being appreciated for what we do. The first is generative and the second is depleting, generally. We will counteract the effects of being appreciated for our “doing-ness” by practicing innate goodness meditation.
There is a meditation that will help to: 1) counteract negative self-talk that drains our energy, 2) find an inner buoyancy to weather the heavy struggles of life, and 3) let us rest in an “unconditioned” quality of our deepest nature.
Innate Goodness Meditation Instruction
This meditation starts with you picturing innate goodness in yourself or another, or if you are a “felt sense” meditator, feeling the felt sense of innate goodness. What does it feel like when you are in the presence of “innate goodness”? For many people, innate goodness feels like a warmth, a radiance not conditioned by anything you can do. Rather it is your beingness, your connection to your source, that is shining through.
Some people find it easier to select their child or pet as a meditative object to picture or have a felt sense of their innate goodness. Use what is most readily available to you.
- Start by picturing yourself or another (pet, child, etc.) at an age when you can easily witness the innate goodness.
- With eyes closed, rest your awareness in your heart center.
- Breathe in and out through your heart area.
- Stay with the felt sense, the radiance, the warmth, the okayness of innate goodness.
I recommend doing the innate goodness meditation 10 to 15 minutes in the morning before starting your work and (ideally) for 10 to 15 minutes at the end of your day before retiring to bed.
Developing Greater Equanimity—Acceptance
One of the occurrences where we overextend ourselves is in our reaction(s) to another’s struggles. We can have a hard time hearing of another’s difficulties or struggles. We wish for their situation to be different, better than it is. Our resistance to the “truth of the moment,” despite being well-motivated, depletes out inner resourcefulness and buoyancy.
One way we can orient toward greater and deeper acceptance of the “truth of this moment” is by practicing equanimity. When you are in a difficult moment, hearing or witnessing another’s pain, discomfort, or struggle, notice if you want to change the situation. Do you want to make their hardship better? Do you wish their difficulty would simply vanish? Despite being well motivated, any wish to change the truth of this moment is not accepting the moment.
Through the direct acceptance of truth, the truth of this moment, we are more fully present to what is happening. When we are more fully present to this moment, the truth of this moment, the greater our capacity to tap into the wealth of our emotional resources and actually be present to another’s pain and difficulties.
The next time you are having an issue arise which is hard to be with, and you feel an urge to “change the channel” of present moment reality, slow down, put your right hand on your heart, and silently repeat “acceptance, acceptance, acceptance.” This supports your being fully present and minimizes the strain of resisting what is actually occurring.
This will lessen your stress as well as let you be more fully present to another person as a part of your service.
Contacting Compassion—Holding with Care
One other helpful spiritual practice to learn and employ to counter compassion fatigue and compassion burnout is compassion itself! Optimally, do this practice every day, or more than once a day.
Those in the helping professions are typically in touch with their compassion for others. It is likely what has motivated a large number of you to enter the helping professions. It is important and very useful to understand how to invite compassion into your heart for either your client or patient, or yourself.
Compassion arises in response to witnessing our suffering or the suffering of others. Begin by contacting your difficulty and suffering. You can contact another’s suffering, if that is easier for you. Lightly feel the suffering while tenderly feeling the upset and anguish. Staying with the tender feeling of suffering in your heart. Now notice a gentle, yet substantial, holding which advances to meet the suffering. This is the arising of compassion itself. This is a universal compassion.
It is important to contact universal compassion. When we make contact with universal compassion, what I call unconditioned compassion, it is not dependent on us doing anything other than tuning into it. If we have to generate compassion through emotions that is too challenging for folks suffering from burnout.
Universal compassion is not conditioned, nor does it draw upon our personal resources, possibly depleting those precious resources. Universal compassion is abundant support to help hold another’s suffering. Universal compassion is not concerned with fixing someone or completely taking away another’s pain or suffering. It adds the helping hand of support to assist with another’s suffering.
I recommend that you employ one, or, better yet, all of the suggestions here to set boundaries and find balance and rejuvenation to lessen, reverse, and prevent compassion fatigue and compassion burnout. In time you will find greater boundaries, deeper acceptance, deeper contact with yourself, and more thorough relaxation with a significantly reduced sense of being constantly drained by your calling to be a helping professional.
Join Stephen’s March 19, 2022 daylong online retreat to learn more: https://awakeningdharma.org/event/reversing-compassion-fatigue-daylong/