When I sat in Dr. Lehman’s Ethics course during the first semester of my M.A. in Counseling program, I never imagined the gravity of compassion fatigue during my future career as a counselor. I was mildly self-aware at the time, enough to realize that my strength in empathy would be my greatest asset and my greatest enemy when working in this field. I understood that I would be able to make quick connections with my clients and they would feel cared for, but I also worried that clients’ stories would become burdensome and cause burn out.
Compassion fatigue has already become a reality as I begin my first counseling job post-graduation. I have been a community mental health therapist for three months and have already experienced a wide range of presenting problems. In any given day, the diversity of my client load looks something like this:
- An elderly client reflecting on his life choices and learning his role in a dysfunctional family.
- An adolescent involved in the foster care system.
- A young adult who has been in and out of residential mental health facilities, participated in self-injurious behavior, and lost their children due to poor decisions.
- A 20-something victim of childhood abuse and adulthood domestic violence.
- A child whose parent cannot understand how to control behavior at home.
- A 40-something who has been addicted to methamphetamine for a majority of his life and is trying to control his anger.
- A young adult in a state of confusion about future direction, addicted to marijuana, and has had several episodes of homelessness.
Story after story of heartache, drama, and hopelessness quickly overtakes my compassion and empathy. I start to confuse one client’s story with another client’s story. I numb my feelings in order to not tear up in session. I attempt to grasp on to any sense of hope in order to remain an effective therapist.
Compassion fatigue is described in the following way:
We have not been directly exposed to the trauma scene, but we hear the story told with such intensity, or we hear similar stories so often, or we have the gift and curse of extreme empathy and we suffer. We feel the feelings of our clients. We experience their fears. We dream their dreams. Eventually, we lose a certain spark of optimism, humor and hope. We tire. We aren’t sick, but we aren’t ourselves. (C. Figley, 1995)
So how do I stay present with my clients in the midst of their difficult stories? How do I show care and concern when I don’t have any left to give? How do I keep compassion fatigue from spilling over into other personal areas of my life?
Each step of my career affirms the direction of my calling. My role as a therapist has challenges, but I know that there is a purpose for this stage. The Lord continues to affirm what I am learning in this step of my career journey. I understand that despite the hardships that my clients are experiencing, I still feel called to listen to others’ stories and provide hope.
Allowing myself time to relax and focus on personal areas of my life is crucial in order to continue to stay effective for clients. I have found during these past few months that exercise is saving me from becoming completely burnt out as a therapist. Activities like running, biking, walking and hiking provide a healthy challenge to distract my mind in a positive way, and releases built up energy and stress from the day. I have also found that I need to have positive, mutually intentional relationships outside of work. I need to have people that I am living life with and who will walk alongside of me during wonderful and difficult times. Finally, I have also valued my quiet time. I make sure to place this alone time as a priority in my schedule for reflection and rejuvenation.
Ultimately, working through compassion fatigue takes a humble spirit. There are many times when I try to overcome my struggle by controlling the direction of a counseling session or multi-task without giving careful thought to my planning. This leaves me more stressed and less focused on the care of my clients. These are the times that I have learned to pray more and seek spiritual encouragement. When I seek help and guidance that is beyond what I am able to give my clients will benefit the most.