Let’s begin by first identifying that I do not believe that there is such a thing as ‘Compassionate Fatigue’. What makes my identification even more interesting is that I’m writing this particular article from my oceanfront room at the beach because I am taking a much needed and overdue break from my practice in order to replenish my own energy levels. So I am very familiar with the quality of fatigue that can accumulate over time when working with individuals in distress. In which case, what exactly is it that I could be referring to when making such a radical and potentially unpopular claim?
‘Compassion Fatigue’ is often described as second-hand trauma; an extreme state of chronic tension and preoccupation with the suffering of those being helped to the degree that it is exhausting and traumatizing to the therapist. I do believe that this experience exists and that it is extremely prevalent within the mental health counseling field as well as other ‘helping’ professions. I just don’t believe that it occurs as a result of practicing compassion. Simply put; if one were truly practicing compassion one would not be fatigued, ‘burned out’ or traumatized as a result of doing this kind of work. In fact, it would be a very different kind of experience for the practitioner; one that is far more equanimous.
I chose to focus my attention on this subject in an attempt to bring awareness to a quality of ‘helping’ that will always be overlooked if we continue to participate in the mainstream identification and definitions of the experience known as ‘Compassion Fatigue’. This very different quality of ‘helping’ can actually create a greater potential for change and healing while allowing the therapist to increase their own capacity to facilitate such an experience for their clients.
So let’s take a closer look at what ‘compassion’ really is and what needs to be occurring in order to truly fulfill the definition of what it means to be ‘compassionate’. For this understanding I’ve chosen not to refer to Mr. Wikipedia or Ms. Merriam-Webster but instead to draw from my own experiences with the Buddhist monks and other wisdom teachers who have taught me through their actions, not their words, what it really means to practice compassion.
Compassion is an expression which truly originates from the heart. Once again, as in previous articles, we are reminded of the understanding that heart frequency is the highest frequency through which one can express while in physical form on this planet. The key to this understanding is to be able to differentiate between what is heartful and what is not. My experience is that most expressions and demonstrations of what we, as a collective, call heartful or loving are not and the difference between what is and what isn’t is the key to understanding what compassion really is.
Compassion can only be experienced when one is detached. Detachment is the opposite of being attached and has nothing to do with being disconnected; quite the opposite. It is the ability to be fully present, in the moment, regardless of what is occurring in that moment. It is the ability to accept and absorb what is happening in the moment with love, reverence, and gratitude even when what is occurring is difficult. It is not controlling, judging, grasping, inserting, adjusting, organizing, projecting, defending, identifying, or resisting. It is the ability to allow yourself to feel and fully sensate what is occurring; to let it move through you and not get stuck in your mind or your body; to have the experience and be complete when the experience is complete. Only when one is completely detached can love and compassion be truly expressed.
I am not, by any means, suggesting that this is easy to put into practice which is why I’m writing this article while on a much needed break at the beach. I fully expect to be working on this for many lifetimes to come. What I am saying is that it’s important to begin to stretch and move towards this understanding and orientation in order to increase our capacity to create real significant and lasting change in our own lives as well as in the lives of those who seek us out for assistance in minimizing their distress and healing their trauma.
While in service to others within the therapeutic arena there is a strong tendency to be extremely attached to outcomes. These attachments are what create the experience referred to as ‘Compassion Fatigue’. The fatigue, exhaustion, and second-hand trauma develop from the conscious and unconscious identifications that what is occurring in the moment needs to look different and it is the therapist’s responsibility to ensure that it does. Therefore, the best place to begin fostering real compassion is by learning how to let go of our attachment to outcome.
What fundamentally gets in the way of our ability to let go of our attachment to a particular outcome is that all of our relationships are being informed by our unconscious attempts to fulfill our own emotional needs. The degree to which this occurs correlates directly to the extent that they were not fulfilled during our formative years by our primary caregivers. The tension that we feel in response to working with individuals who are distressed comes from the dissonance that we experience when sitting with their trauma and the subsequent judgments and projections that occur in an unconscious attempt to deflect the awareness that we are sitting with our own reflection. Sitting with trauma touches in on our own trauma imprinting. Subsequently, any attachment we have to the other’s experience or situation looking different is really coming from our inability to accept and come to terms with our own situation(s), past and present. This brings us back full circle to the understanding identified in the article “Finding a Therapist” in which the therapist is always trying to ‘rescue’ themselves through the work they facilitate with their clients despite any altruistic thoughts they may be harboring to the contrary. The fatigue is a result of the chronic tension experienced when the therapist keeps ‘bumping’ up against their own ‘shtuff’ and defends against the experience by projecting onto the client that the client’s experience needs to look different. By doing so, the therapist never has to deal with the discomfort and anxiety stemming from their own unresolved trauma imprinting.
Judgment and resistance is the tension that creates the experience of fatigue. Fatigue and compassion do not co-exist because compassion is the state of non-judgement and complete acceptance. Compassion can be achieved by practicing detachment. Evidence of compassion being present within the therapeutic relationship is determined by the practitioner’s ability to accept what is occurring in the moment. This, in turn, is being informed and limited by the practitioner’s ability to accept their own experience(s) which is always being influenced by the extent to which they are engaged in their own healing process. Looking within to heal, resolve, and accept whatever has happened in the past that was distressing, uncomfortable, and traumatic dissolves whatever memory is still being held in the trillions of cells in the physical body. The trauma imprinting dissolves in response to one’s ability to accept rather than defend their experience. This, in turn, increases one’s capacity to practice true compassion which is the only authentic expression of love; the act of complete and total acceptance. The degree to which this can be extended to another is always going to be determined by one's ability to be compassionate with the self. Only then, can the other be truly ‘seen’, absent of any unconscious conditioning that how the other shows up needs to be in accordance with meeting one’s own needs.