It was 2019 when I finally walked away from my job as a surgical and postanesthesia care nurse at a community hospital.
Times were tough. Not only was my team shouldering part blame for an incident at the hospital, which was later dropped, but I was also looking after my five children while working full-time, and going through multiple personal health challenges.
I felt completely depleted—that special kind of exhaustion that no amount of sleep could fix. Not that I ever had more than a few hours of rest a night. I was losing my sense of connection with others; I was cranky, and it scared me. The friendly, outgoing nurse I had once been was no more and others were starting to notice it. I knew I was burnt out, but it wasn’t until a few months after leaving that I realized I was suffering from compassion fatigue.
What is compassion fatigue?
Professor and trauma expert Charles R. Figley is largely credited for terming the phrase “Compassion Fatigue” as a means to describe the distress and pain sometimes those in caregiving roles experience as a direct result of their exposure to another person’s traumatic material. He suggested that this unique form of burnout was a natural, predictable, treatable, and preventable unwanted consequence of working with suffering people.
The day I stumbled across the concept of compassion fatigue was the day I came to fully understand what I was going through. It finally made sense. Years upon years of caring for those in traumatic times had left me feeling empty. I knew I had to make a change.
Healing from compassion fatigue is a process. It not only takes dealing with the immediate emotional and mental challenge, but also calls us to make major changes in the way we live our lives. We not only need to tackle the symptoms, but also the cause.
For me, there were three key pillars that helped me heal my compassion fatigue:
When I took a step back and looked at my daily commitments, I realized immediately that I was not only massively overextending myself, but I was also allocating absolutely no time to myself. It was almost like I didn’t exist, or at the very least, that I didn’t matter.
It was honestly hard to even see how I had been managing to work my regular hours, plus my callback hours, plus my overtime hours, plus homeschooling my son and raising my four other children. I realized, in taking a step back, that there was nothing in my schedule solely dedicated to me. This had to change.
In quitting my job, I reclaimed a huge amount of time. But it took me a good few months still to learn how to allocate nonnegotiable time to myself. Slowly by surely, time to meditate, time to read, and time to move my body started to regularly appear in my calendar. And in introducing these things, some of the heaviness in my heart had lifted.
2. Protecting our empathetic side.
In taking a break from nursing, I realized that I was also lacking emotional boundaries with others.
I had always taken great pride in my empathetic nature, but I realized then, for the first time, that I was acting less like an empath and more like a martyr. As an empath, I felt my patients’ distress deeply, and, as a result of this, I found it almost impossible to say “no,” even if what was being asked of me was totally unrelated to my role as a nurse.
Learning how to say “no,” even when I was feeling deeply for someone, taught me how to value myself too, and also stopped others from taking advantage of me. As I started to more regularly say “no” to the requests from others that crossed my boundaries, I not only began to feel better but I also noticed that I was being treated more respectfully by others.
3. Learning how to replenish our inner resources.
Working in a hospital is loud, dramatic, and draining on an emotional, mental, and physical level.
As nurses, we are not taught how to replenish our own batteries. If anything, our instructions point us forever outwards at the patient. And though this is fundamental in nursing, however, if we are not taking the time to look after ourselves, then what we offer our patients is limited. It is paramount, not only for ourselves but also those we serve, that we learn how to replenish our batteries through gifting ourselves the time in our daily schedule to decompress.
For me, this meant dedicating time to walking in nature, keeping my journal, and gifting myself little quiet moments during the day where I could catch my breath and smell the roses.
Given my story, you’d probably be surprised to know that I am back to nursing, not only as a nurse but now also as a coach to those suffering from compassion fatigue.
The biggest shift isn’t in what I’m doing, but more in how I’m doing it. I have learned how to live life on my own terms.
Here’s the simple truth: having set healthy boundaries with myself and others, having better understood how to protect my empathetic side, and having learned how to dedicate time to myself to replenish my inner resources, I can now help others far more powerfully than I ever did before.