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May 24, 2019

Compassion Fatigue: Soul-Care or Self-Care?

Compassion fatigue.

Caregiver burnout.

Empathy burnout.

Highly sensitive person burnout.

Burnout is real. And, we have all heard the term before. Like most disorders or syndromes, they are concepts until you have lived with ‘it.’

What is burnout? A state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. Compassion fatigue affects those who are in the helping profession (therapists, nurses, doctors, palliative care providers, healers, etc) that results in profound emotional and physical exhaustion, whereas they cannot refuel or recharge.

Signs of compassion fatigue can include difficulty concentrating, intrusive imagery, feeling discouraged about the world, sense of hopelessness, exhaustion and irritability, helpers leaving the field, anxiousness, headaches, lack of sleep, chronic fatigue, weakened immune function, and a cynical outlook on life.

I was presented with all of these symptoms — not all at once. In time, however, they collided together, causing a complete shutdown of my system resulting in prolonged physical sickness. I am not sure exactly when the signs started to creep into my field of awareness. I recall the moment when one of my professors from grad school warned me that ‘burnout is real’ and that I was to pay attention to my energy reserves. I heard him, and I thought to myself: ‘Not for me.’ I was frustrated by the comment.

As a high achiever, I am accustomed to burning the candle at both ends. Honestly, I thought I was buffered from experiencing compassion fatigue – magical thinking indeed. I had already healed my nervous system from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Thus, I knew how to take care of my nervous system, and I knew how to heal. Therefore, I would be fine – so I thought.

I remember my Psychologist telling me that my nervous system was susceptible to ‘relapsing’ – but I ignored her too. I believed that I had important work to do, and I was finally coming into my Soul’s calling. I wanted to (finally) be productive with my time and energy, and earn a living for the first time since adulthood (and motherhood).

Having spent nine years in post-secondary education, plus eight years studying traditional midwifery and numerous years of independent studies, including full-time motherhood, I had yet to earn a living and have a vocation.  Perhaps this is why I refused to listen to the warnings. Or maybe, I was paying attention and adapting along the way.

It didn’t seem to matter how much I meditated, how well I ate, how I scheduled my time, how many therapy sessions I attended, how I journaled my stressful thoughts daily, how much time I spent in nature and with friends, how loving my relationships were – in the end, none of these self-care rituals mattered.

I still burned out.

The most challenging part of compassion fatigue is admitting that I was vulnerable to ‘catching’ this syndrome. The emotional exhaustion was one thing, but when my immune system started to tank, and it seemed like I was just getting over one sickness, to be knocked down again, I began to lose stamina and hope.

Without hope, depressive symptoms crept in — an all too familiar state of being.

In this weakened state, I (we) am susceptible to negative biases with my mind chatter running amok. The brain is not functioning optimally, and stressful thinking started to get louder. Why couldn’t I handle my workload? Why was my system weak, and other professionals seem never to waver? What was wrong with me? Maybe I am not cut out for the helping profession? Did I upset my clients? It was my fault for taking on too much. I am defective. I am weak. Weakness is bad. Ultimately, hitting one of my core beliefsI am inadequate.

And voila, within minutes, I have spiraled into my interior dungeon, and now, I am at war with myself.

Being ill for well over a month resulted in less physical activity and less structured meditation time. In all of this, I still have a family to care for, thus required to maintain house duties and make sure my family is well nourished with healthy meals. However, I want nothing to do with any of these roles or any role for a matter of fact. I am merely going through the motions.

What about self-care?

In researching burnout and compassion fatigue, the main suggestion is to maintain good self-care practices. The word ‘self-care’ has always annoyed me somewhat. Not because I do not believe in taking good care of oneself, but rather because we have made an industry out of it.  Not to mention that as a young mother who would head out for a break when my husband returned from work, I was labeled as ‘selfish’ by extended family members.

Is self-care, selfish? Do we even need to ask this question?

I do take good care of myself:

  • I eat nourishing foods low in sugar and carbohydrates;
  • I visit with dear friends regularly;
  • I am in a loving relationship with very low stress or conflict;
  • I love my children and have a healthy relationship with them;
  • I communicate my needs and experience my emotions;
  • I go for walks in nature;
  • I create jewelry and use expressive art as a way to center and ground;
  • I write my heart out;
  • I go for floats and steams;
  • I have a meditation practice and engage in self-inquiry daily;
  • I enjoy music and art;
  • I have a love affair with good food and good wine;
  • Cooking is a form of meditation and creation for me;
  • I take long baths and read;
  • I have a therapist;
  • I attend workshops and inspiring events;
  • I see alternative practitioners for bodywork;
  • I genuinely love my life and experience significant meaning

I am not sure what more I am supposed to do for self-care?

All of which caused me to pause and contemplate the notion of soul-care, not self-care. Is it more self-care I (we) need? Or is it something else, something much more profound than self-care? What about the notion of being nourished and replenished? How about the concept of receptivity and refueled?

How is it that I (we) can be so engaged in life and my ‘self-care’ rituals and yet, my inner well is still dry? The notion of the well brought to my attention by Sharon Blackie and my dear colleague has struck a cord indeed. Albeit, there is plenty of nourishing waters surrounding the well. The image is such that the well, my well, is barren and bleak. Something has blocked the flow of water to penetrate and refill my well. The well is not receiving the nourishment from the surrounding springs; thus, it is not being replenished.

Compassion fatigue = no more water (nourishment) to give from the inner well. 

Akin to no more life force flowing through me. Indeed, it is a sense of withering and desolation. And this is terrifying. Sitting in the discomfort of this discovery and feeling the sensation of terror, I am motivated to sort it out (internally of course).

If my inner well is dry and bleak, how do I uncover where the block is? How do I remove the barrier? How do I allow the source of flowing water to replenish the inner well? How do I drink from this the nourishment? Where is it? Is it only my well that is starving, or is this symbolically a global crisis? Are the collective wells dry?

My dear friend reminds me of the folklore of the wells. They are symbolic of Life and tended to by the women, and visited on Holy Days. They signify all of Life. And, perhaps, she poses, even with self-care and soul-care, the wells of women are suffering.  

In seeking to address these questions, I made some radical decisions about my current career path and stopped my thriving and growing trauma-focused therapy practice. I halted the forward momentum of the train I was on, dead in its tracks. I thought perhaps if I went to part-time, it would help (as recommended by professionals), and this did not seem to reverse the draining of the well. Eventually, I stopped seeing clients in person.  Which created much needed physical and energetic space to replenish or draw on any reserves that were left; however, shortly after that, I was taken down by physical sickness that has lasted well over a month.

Eventually resulting in the straw that broke the camel’s back so to speak (I know such a terrible idiom), as the prolonged illness ate up any remaining reserves of energy. From the outside, this would appear as if depression has set in, with very little life force or optimism. However, I know in my bones, it is not depression; it is my bodies response to the sick expectations of our current society.

I can see myself curled up in a ball, at the base of a tree, sleeping for eons and desperately wanting to crawl into the tree and receive my nourishment from its roots. Only in the imaginal realm can this happen. If self-care is not the answer, and it is palpable that I am suffering from a dry inner well, how do I find the water source to tap into? I am overwhelmed with a thirst akin to having fasted for days. If only I knew where to seek for the abundant natural flow available to all.

What is blocking the flow?

Water – life force – is all around. It appears to be never lacking. The earth is mostly water; our bodies are mostly water. Always there (although it is dwindling). It is like someone has turned off the taps. Did I turn off the taps? Why?

If no self-care measures seem to help (maybe they prolonged the inevitable) than what can or does feed and fuel the Soul and replenish the inner wells? The only thing left, as I see it, is to surrender to that which is mysterious, beyond the ego, and the mind — engaging the altered state of consciousness. Am I called to pray? I know there have been studies on the power of prayer and intention, and the incredible healing results. However, I need to engage in something even more profound than prayer (if that is even possible).

It is about trust – a deep trust that goes beyond the mind.

Trusting that Life itself, the Universe, the Spirits, the Cosmos, The Creator, The Gods, and Goddesses are on my side. I came to know that I couldn’t trust in Life because I was born into death. All I knew was death and grief and suffering. An imprint that Life is not kind, nor on my side.

While in this surrender, I see my life in review. I understood that I was motivated to avoid death as if death has been chasing me for my entire existence. It is fucken exhausting running from death for 42 years. I am tired. And, I see now that I cannot rely on my ego, my identity, to be running the show anymore.

I understand what Ian McGilchrist is so eloquently proposing throughout his manuscript, The Master and His Emissary when he suggests that the right hemisphere is the dominant hemisphere of the brain. He offers, after a lifetime of study, that the right hemisphere is to lead and that the left is to follow.

My left hemisphere – the rational, reasoning, analytical, egoic ways of being – has been running the show, for a good reason. It has been afraid, and in fear, the left dominates. For the left to surrender to the right is what the Great Mystics have been proposing all along.

The right hemisphere – creative, expansive, non-linear, soulful – wants to be in the driver’s seat. And, the great war within is that of the identities. So well-crafted and brought to life within the left hemisphere and they are battling against this inevitable truth. All this left-right banter to merely say that my Soul wants to lead. And my ego can serve my Soul (not the other way around).

Without an innate trust in Life itself, I (the ego I) has had to do it all. I have been striving to thrive. Thus, the birth of my high achiever and my Olympian. I do love this part of me, but she has eaten up all of my inner reserves. And now, my well is dry. And my Olympian is slowly dying because she can no longer perform to the standards that she is accustomed to playing. I love her, and I don’t want that identity to die.

But she is withering. And, with it, my life force is dwindling.

I can’t help but pause and consider that perhaps all of this is about a paradigm shift in perspective. In which I lean into trusting Life itself to encourage my Soul to lead and my well-crafted identities, to follow. This concept is not what is at the forefront of society. We live in a left hemisphere dominant, ways of being.

We have got it all backward.

Is it any surprise that so many of us healer types are burned out, ill, exhausted, and at our ropes end? Is it possible that, as my dear friend pointed out, us sensitive types are merely replicating in our bodies what the earthly and spiritual wells are living – emptiness. Perhaps, my compassion fatigue is precisely what has needed to happen for a shift from left dominant to the right dominant ways of being. I don’t think the change can happen through rational thinking; in fact, I know it cannot. I think it happens when we surrender because we have nothing left to give.

I am in this place – nothing left to give.

Thus, I can allow something different to emerge and let the waters return. Or I continue to wither in fear. Maybe I (we) need burnout as medicine. It is neither good nor bad. But instead, a necessary reaction to an out of harmony system – individually and collectively. Healing doesn’t mean ‘getting better’ so you can pick up where you left off; stepping back into the old, sick cycle. And, I realized I did this.

Driven by the hidden patterns and drive to take charge of my life because of a belief that Life was not going to take care of me, I needed this collapse to see clearly; to tap into something beyond my ‘self’. Albeit I still don’t like it as I write this. Healing, to me, means wisdom and insight to change the way you show up in the world. I hope I come through this waterfall, having listened to the teachings hidden in burnout. I am always learning. And compassion fatigue has humbled me.

There is no up and out. No highlighted happy ended or nicely wrapped essay with a well-crafted conclusion. The truth is, I am still searching for the nourishment that will replenish my well. I drink small convalescence amounts of water these days. The beauty of spring. The laughter from family and friends. Marveling in hand creations. Watching the leaves unfurl. Feeling the wind as I bike. And putting words to paper. These small gestures nourish my Soul; they represent sips from the well of Life itself. And, maybe, for now, this is enough.


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Jennifer Summerfeldt  |  Contribution: 375