By Eran Magen
You open yourself up to the pain of others, in order to be a comforting presence in the middle of a terrible experience. It helps them, and it drains you. It is exhausting to experience so much secondhand suffering. Over time, it sucks the color out of your own life, leaves you depleted, less able to connect with the next person and to enjoy your own life.
Compassion fatigue. Whether it’s the compassion in us that gets fatigued, or the fatigue caused because of compassion, the phrase rings true. Sometimes, compassion fatigue results in a growing internal resistance to witnessing the suffering of others. We avoid seeing them, hearing them, smelling them; and when we must, we avoid considering their suffering with any depth. We become numb to it, and witnessing the agony of someone else stirs no greater a reaction in us than seeing a pebble fall and strike a rock. Our own joy becomes flatter, duller. We avoid the pain by blunting our ability to feel, and it becomes harder and harder to see the good and to believe in it.
Compassion fatigue is a form of depletion. Depletion happens when the rate of drain is greater than the rate of replenishment. So there are two things to do: Drain less, recharge more.
Connecting with the suffering of others is draining, and more so when we are more emotionally merged with the person we are supporting. On the spectrum that runs from “Totally Separate” to “Totally Merged”, there is a point between those extremes that allows me to be connected and still differentiated, to help you feel like you are not alone, that you are seen and known and cared for, without requiring me to feel the full extent of your pain. Carl Rogers beautifully defined Empathic Accuracy:
“Accurate empathic understanding means that the therapist is completely at home in the universe of the patient. It is a moment-to-moment sensitivity that is in the “here and now,” the immediate present. it is a sensing of the client’s inner world of private personal meanings “as if” it were the therapist’s own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.”
The awareness that the speaker’s experience is not the listener’s actual experience diminishes the emotional contagion (“referred pain”) from the speaker’s experience to the listener’s experience. We don’t have total control over where we end up on this spectrum in any given interaction – for example, talking with someone we are very close to, or about an experience that strongly resonates with us, will move us toward being more merged. But we do have some control, and with practice we can have even more. We can learn to care more about people that we wouldn’t normally care about so much, and we can learn to disentangle ourselves a little from the emotional reactions of people we care about a great deal (like spouses or family members), so we can be more intentional and helpful with them. Learning to ask “How merged am I right now?” is a good starting point for learning to tweak just how merged we are with another person, and thereby reduce the drain we experience by supporting someone.
But all this does not change the basic reality: To be present to suffering is draining. To interact with someone in pain and take any position other than “Totally Separate” is draining. And if you do this multiple times a day, with people experiencing a lot of suffering, then there will be significant drain. Which means you must be very intentional about recognizing and respecting your limits and about recharging.
Managing our energy balance is critical. Neglecting our own emotional balance will result in compassion fatigue – and compassion fatigue is a serious flirt with serious depression, which will hurt our relationships, our ability to find meaning in our lives, our ability to have hope, and sometimes our desire to live.
Connecting with others is real work. At some point, we need to take a break and recharge, by doing something that leaves us with more energy than we had when we started doing it. The actual activity that we do in order to recharge changes from one person to the next, and even within the same person. After a long solo hike, I like to eat with a friend. After listening deeply to the troubles of a friend, I like to quietly read a book. Find out how you recharge. Schedule recharging activities. Then stick to your schedule.
Take your scheduled recharge activities very seriously. Your life may depend on it. Your relationships certainly do.
- When you are offering supportive listening, set a timer to go off every 2-5 minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: How merged am I? Can I be less merged and still care?
- Make a list of recharging activities that can fit into your schedule. Look for activities that leave you feeling better than you did before doing them.
- Schedule 5 recharging activities for every week and honor that schedule as though your life depends on it.