Sunday, December 30, 2007

To the Compassion Fatigued

The Three Monks are doing a Spread the Love Now! Group Writing Project. For the rules for submitting an article go to one of their websites.

To the Compassion Fatigued

I have a knack for grabbing a newspaper, flipping to some random page, and with less than conscious intention landing my eyes on a narrative laced in brutality, drenched in suffering, and devoid of hope.

There are those of us who lap up this consistent feed of suffering, immersing ourselves in collective despair much like gnats drowned in a half-drunken pint of warm Pilsner. Others swipe this reality away with a voracity reserved for those who simply cannot bear one more kernel of fear. There are those who, in the face of a seemingly never-ending torrent of injustice, get angry, find their voice, and take action. Still others, in a grind for the restoration of control, dish it out onto someone else.

I could go on, as there are countless styles that members of the human race employ in coming to terms with the unthinkable, the unbearable, and the unconscionable.
My own style is in transition, and this is where an important lesson in compassion emerges.

Historically, my strategy has been to put myself in the eye of the storm so that I may assume a helper role.
Like most people, my proclivities stem from my own rearing, which in my case crafted an empathetic, intuitive, compassionate, and sensitive constitution. I am driven by a need to be engaged with the complexities of the human condition, as well as to contribute to the growth and healing of the collective consciousness. These are gifts, and as such I’m thankful for the lived experiences, both sweet and wrenching, that I owe this learning to.

As there is light, there is a shadow side: vulnerability to merging with the emotional states of others, over-identification with suffering, hyper-vigilance, assuming responsibility that simply is not mine, layers upon layers of guilt, self-neglect, martyrdom, and burnout.

I experienced the onset of Compassion Fatigue, or vicarious trauma, during my first year out of graduate school while working as a therapist at a rape crisis center that was poorly run. The intense clinical work combined with the chaotic, unhealthy work environment left me emotionally drained. I began to see the world as a terribly dangerous place. I was hyper-vigilant of my surroundings. My soma became physically ill with colds and infections I couldn’t shake off. White hairs began to sprout, and my sleep morphed into a dreamscape of nightmares. Close friends commented that I didn’t look well and asked if I was o.k.

The film of denial coated onto the relationship between my job and my well being eroded, and in its place were the assumptions I held regarding compassion. I realized that I’d relegated myself to an unconscious and psychologically young paradigm that limited my ability to simultaneously hold compassion for others and myself. In this paradigm, there was an unspoken rule, which is this: Only one person gets to have their needs met. From which I derived a related belief: Taking care of myself comes at the cost of someone else, which I cannot bear.

With eyes wide shut, I subscribed to the deeply engrained belief that my worth was based on my ability to meet the needs of others. Psychology labels this as codependency. I reframe this as an issue of the soul and, ultimately, love.

Rather than junk the idea of becoming a therapist all together or continue in my victimhood/martyrdom, I took responsibility, listened deeply to my inner voice, and made choices that I felt were in my best interest. I left that job with a deeper understanding of my limits and the intention to renegotiate my relationship to compassion.

What began as a mini-crisis in the realm of work deepened into a spiritual inquiry of love. The external motion of delivering compassion was out of sync with the internal process of replenishing love to the Self. I believe this can also become inverted as self-involvement hinders the capacity to extend love beyond the Self.

Today, I find value in small, everyday acts of compassion, such as helping a blind person across the street, acknowledging the dwindling life force of our Christmas tree, being gentle with myself after a tough day, or paying mind the energy I take in and put out into the world. Today, I strive to balance love and compassion with limit-setting and respite. Today, I try my best to remain open to both the light and shadow intrinsic to the human condition.

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