When I said this to a participant at The Canadian MPN Network Conference, it got a huge laugh. One of the great aphorisms of comedy is “Its funny ’cause its true!”
In this case, the lady I was speaking to was telling me that as a result of her being sick, she said she felt more empathy for people. She could understand others’ feelings more and she could cut other people more slack. Isn’t that fascinating? You would think that after a tough time, a lot of people would become bitter or resentful.
Often we have a chunk of adversity in our lives and somehow we manage to keep on keeping on, but after getting through the stress and navigating our way through a very difficult time often we are different. You could even say we are transformed. Some of us develop more empathy, others of us (like myself) get unreasonably pissed off for a while and pray that someone will steal candy from a baby on our street so we can start a round of fisticuffs. (After a while this anger calmed down into a state of assertiveness. I am really glad because fisticuffs are inconvenient.)
But what I have found after working with healthcare professionals and people going through life altering diseases is that our most arduous experiences change us.
One of my favourite questions to ask during a keynote is “In the experience of your journey with cancer (or another issue) what learnings or insights have you made?” People always have an answer. Nobody ever says “I feel exactly the same!” I have heard people say they are more sympathetic, more adventurous, more thoughtful, less resentful, more independent, more open to new ideas, more resilient and that they eat more dessert– to name a few.
All of this is good stuff don’t you think? I do. I love all of those things (especially the one about dessert).
So, where does this come from? Well, you may heave heard of a friend of mine called Joseph Campbell. (OK, He’s not my friend, but I like to pretend he is.) He came up with the idea of The Hero’s Journey which in a very tiny nutshell, is the idea that when we go on an adventure and face challenges and adversities that we are transformed and even improved by the experience.
I really think that is what happens to us when we deal with a transformative experience with our health. Our experience changes us, it molds and shapes us until we can look at who we used to be in the past and say “Hey, I’m a better person than I used to be.”
At a recent event for The Canadian Mental Health Association Waterloo Wellington Dufferin, I was thrilled to present The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World. During one of the breaks, I was lucky enough to meet Laura McShane and we got talking about compassion fatigue. She agreed to a brief interview for this blog. But what does any of this have to do with AC/DC?
Rob: So, we’ve talked about compassion fatigue and I’m wondering could you just tell me at a very basic level what it is?
Laura: Yes, compassion fatigue is the cost of caring. It impacts the caring part of us that brought us into the helping field.
R: Is it just Mental Health Professionals who suffer from compassion fatigue?
L: Gosh, No. Everyone in the caring professions can be affected. Nurses, physicians, first responders and therapists can all be impacted by compassion fatigue. It goes beyond professions too. Parents looking after a sick child or caregivers of family member can be affected as well.
R: I read in some of my research that people who are affected by compassion fatigue sometimes take on the feelings of the people they are helping.
L: Caring professionals can be impacted by listening to the traumatic experiences and details of a client’s life and it can be very distressing for them.
R: Is there stigma in talking about it?
L: Well, I don’t know if I would call it stigma, but I would say that sometimes it might be difficult to address it because of a worry people might think that they aren’t capable of doing their jobs, which isn’t true. Compassion Fatigue affects the most caring, hard working people.
R: How did you learn about this and then become a trainer?
L: Well, I took a terrific workshop called “Walking The Walk” by Francoise Mathieu, which was really amazing. (link here) she has done some great work on compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma . The management team of CMHA WWD believe it is important to acknowledge that it exists and help provide staff with some strategies to cope with the impact.
R: What is one of the ways to deal with compassion fatigue?
L: Having a transition ritual is a great way to help cope. A transition ritual helps you make a separation between your work life and your home life.
R: How does that work?
L: Well, when you’re done for the day and you’re going home, you might want to crank AC/DC on your car stereo and sing sing sing!!!
R: That’s hilarious! And that’s a transition ritual?
L: Yes, it can help us draw the line between these two worlds so we don’t take the concerns of our work home with us.
R: What are some others?
L: Well, some others might be allowing ourselves to think about work up until a certain point in our drive home, say up until a marker on our drive, like a Tim Hortons. And then after that spot, we only think about our personal life and we leave work behind.
R: Any other ones?
L: Sure! A really great way of transitioning from work to home is to get out of our work clothes immediately after we get home and then getting into a more comfortable outfit. It can really help us change our mindset.
R: Do you have any stories from your own experience about dealing with compassion fatigue?
L: Yes I do. It was earlier in my career and I came home from work one day and I had a really rough day. There had been endless appointments and I had helped people all day long. I was exhausted. When I walked in the door, my daughter was so excited to see me and she wanted to go outside and play, bike ride, catch frogs, colour, and do all kinds of things. I said “Oh honey, Mummy is really tired right now, can I just have five minutes of quiet please because I have been helping people all day.” She looked at me and said “But Mummy, you’re my Mummy.”
L: And at that point I knew I had to make some changes.
R: Sometimes kids can have such clarity.
L: (laughs) Oh yes.
R: Is compassion fatigue something that we ever solve? Or is it something we have to deal with continually?
L: Well, I suppose it’s different for everyone. But, I don’t think we’re ever done. It’s part of the price of being a caring professional. One thing that a lot of people don’t realize is that this builds up over time and has a cumulative effect. So, you can be in one job and then take another position somewhere else and your level of compassion fatigue might become more and more intense. Just because we have changed jobs doesn’t mean that we have solved the issue. It’s really important for us to keep looking after ourselves and making sure that we are making our self care a priority. That way, we can continue to do the work that we love and finish our day experiencing compassion satisfaction.
R: Thank so much for talking to me about this today! I really appreciate it.
L: You’re welcome! Thanks Rob.
R: To celebrate the awesomeness of this interview, let’s all crank “You Shook Me All Night Long” By Angus and the boys.
However, sometimes our “muscles” of compassion and empathy can get tired. You might be easily distracted when you’re with the people you serve. You might not care as much or be using your skills to the best of your ability.
It can be hard for us to admit that this is happening to us. We’d rather just push through it and pretend it isn’t there.
Then kablam! You realize “I’m suffering from compassion fatigue!”
It can feel like everyone is dealing with this better than we are. I’ll tell you a secret about humanity though, we all have our issues. Even the well adjusted “superstar” of your team can have a hard time with compassion fatigue.
So, how do we help ourselves through this? One of the great ways is to collaborate with our peers.
Really. Collaborating with our peers can help us like crazy.
It struck me that that there are literally thousands in the caring professions who are working really hard, giving generously of themselves and sometimes feeling really worn out in body and psyche because of the nature of this demanding work. I am guessing that no one in the world has this whole thing solved. Yep. No one. However, if we have one small piece of the puzzle worked out, shouldn’t we share what we have?
I had the honour recently of presenting my keynote “The Wellness Solution: Help Yourself Help The World” for The Canadian Mental Health Association: Waterloo Wellington Dufferin. I asked people to share how they dealt with this when they were having a tough day.
What happened my friends, was significant.
People stood up, talked and joked. They shared solutions and strategies to help each other with this tough issue and the energy of the room took off. As a speaker, it was so much fun to see more than a hundred people dive in and collaborate. In fact, folks were so pumped about helping each there that I had trouble ending the exercise and getting on with the show. It was a real testament to how generous people in the caring professions are and how, when we share what we have, everybody wins.
When the day ended, people were happier knowing that they helped their colleagues and that they had learned some valuable tools they could use the next time the elephant tried to sneak back in the room.