By Drew Dillingham
Catholic News Service
(Fourteenth in a series)
ROME — To have compassion means to suffer with another. It is a trait we as Christians seek to live out every day. Many of us labor, personally and professionally, to carry out Jesus’ call to provide compassionate support to others. In our society, for example, mothers, fathers, priests, nuns, doctors, psychologists, nurses, social workers, teachers and many others dedicate their lives to helping others. In this way, many of us are fulfilling our vocations to love God and to love one another as ourselves.
Too often, however, we forget that in order to love one another, we must also love and take care of ourselves. Sometimes we spend so much time helping others carry their crosses that we forget we also are carrying our own. Spending time to help others, with no consideration of our own spiritual, physical and mental needs can lead to “compassion fatigue.” This is what my classmates and I learned at the Pontifical Gregorian University on Wednesday as we wrap up our studies on safeguarding minors. While we looked at this issue in terms of child protection and victim assistance, compassion fatigue can affect anyone whose role includes helping others on a consistent basis.
According to Charles Figley, an expert in psychology and mental health:
“Compassion fatigue has been described as the ‘cost of caring’ for others in emotional and physical pain. It is characterized by deep physical and emotional exhaustion and a pronounced change in the helper’s ability to feel empathy for their patients, their loved ones and their co-workers. It is marked by increased cynicism at work, a loss of enjoyment … and eventually can transform into depression, secondary traumatic stress and stress-related illnesses. The most insidious aspect of compassion fatigue is that it attacks the very core of what brought us into this work (to help): our empathy and compassion for others.”
One of the biggest obstacles to identifying and treating compassion fatigue is our struggle to recognize that the experiences, emotions and feelings of those we help can affect us negatively. As someone who enjoys reading stoic philosophy, I often find myself falling into that trap. For example, in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, you can find ideas like, “Reject the sense of the injury, and the injury itself disappears,” or “When something happens that makes you feel bitter, treat it not as misfortune, but say ‘to bear this worthily is good fortune.'”
These types of stoic ideas can be helpful in some ways, but they also lead to the idea that we ourselves can always rise above our emotions and feelings. Our experiences in life show this not to be true. As Rachel Naomi Remen says, “The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it is as unrealistic as expecting to be able to walk through water without getting wet.”
True happiness requires more than just our own use of reason. It requires the recognition and management of our emotions, the help of others and the grace of God. One way to recognize if you are experiencing the effects of compassion fatigue is by using the Professional Quality of Life Scale. This scale is used by those in professions that help others to measure whether they need to take some time to provide for their own self-care. Those who have been providing care to others in their personal lives may also find this scale helpful.
Self-care can take the form of anything that relieves your stress and simply makes you happy. For example, hobbies, physical exercise, athletics, watching movies and comedies, being with those you love, taking a vacation and spending time with God through prayer. Mass or Eucharistic Adoration can be used to prevent and treat compassion fatigue. If self-care is not enough, it is also helpful to seek the assistance of other professionals.
Compassion fatigue can affect all of us. In order to continue our vocations to provide compassionate care to others, it is important to be as kind to yourself as you are to others. So this week, I hope you take some time to take care your neighbor AND yourself.
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Drew Dillingham is the Coordinator for Resources and Special Projects with the Secretariat for Child and Youth Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C. He is attending Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University’s interdisciplinary program for a diploma in safeguarding minors. He is an avid reader of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and shares his April 26th birthday. Dillingham also dabbles in the works of Bishop Robert Barron, thanks to the ongoing encouragement of his wife, Kim.