Hope for Healing from Compassion Fatigue

“I’m just so exhausted!”

The end of the school year has always been filled with mixed emotions, but this has been a year like no other. From quarantines and e-learning to unthinkable experiences of loss and uncertainty about the days ahead. Being tired is completely understandable, but for many this is an exhaustion that sleep won’t cure.

Have you had worrisome thoughts about your students or families that don’t stop? Have you been distracted, irritable and even physically in pain? Have you found yourself being short-tempered, wondering if you can even keep up with the demands of your life?

That’s more than just being stressed. Those are signs of compassion fatigue.

As a mental health professional, and former medical provider, compassion fatigue is not a new concept to me. But in the education world, it’s becoming a silent killer to adequate yearly progress for students, staff morale, and even the climate and culture of our schools. As many schools have moved toward being more trauma-informed, focusing on relationships, and incorporating social and emotional learning, it’s commonplace for teachers and instructional support professionals to see and hear things that might have previously only been heard in the counseling office. Combine those stories with an empathetic heart and limited resources to support and you’ve got the recipe for compassion fatigue.

Compassion fatigue was a term coined in the early ‘90s as a nurse described a unique combination of feelings which included anger, hopelessness, deep physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion. She reported that she lost her “ability to nurture” and was no longer effective at giving care. Psychologist, Dr. Charles Figley, went on to conduct a significant amount of research on the impact caring for patients who were experiencing suffering had on caregivers. Initially, this was very much focused on those who were considered “first-responders,” including police officers and mental health workers.

But now our educators are the first responders.

Educators who are spending 7+ hours per day in classrooms with students experiencing chronic poverty, homelessness, physical abuse, and neglect, don’t have the power to “save” a life and have the added duty of trying to educate a mind that has adapted to chronic stresses. While there is no magic wand to eliminate this problem, when you’re starting to see the signs of compassion fatigue or burnout these three steps do help us start the process of healing.

1. Name It

When it comes to emotional discomfort, there is power in acknowledgment. I like to say, if we name it, we can tame it. This starts by outlining the difference between regular stress—which can have some benefits—and compassion fatigue which has NO benefits. When we see it, we need to call it out by offering support to the impacted staff AND students.

Staff often report feeling isolated, ashamed, and incompetent; communicating about the experience can lessen all of those emotions. Doing a quick check in prior to staff meetings with a tool like The Stress Response Continuum from the COHCW Covid Support Organization is one option. Doing this anonymously with post it notes or with a Zoom poll can also work.

2. Make Time for Joy

This may sound counterintuitive when you’re stressed and overwhelmed, but trust me, it works. Feeling hopeless is a marker for compassion fatigue and being hopeful about anything, even something small can be just what the doctor ordered.  Filling your own cup also counts as self-compassion which is critical to replenishing your resilience, or ability to bounce back.

You have the right to feel happy even if your students are struggling. Your suffering doesn’t eliminate theirs, in fact it can make it worse if your discomfort joins you in the classroom. A 7- day cruise might not be in the budget, but a small act of self-care can go a long way.

3. Set a Boundary

I saved the best, and hardest, for last. Boundaries are incredibly challenging for helpers. Our natural instinct and desire to help automatically sets us up to overextend. Not to mention societal norms that teach us to feel guilty for saying no. But boundaries aren’t just about saying no, they are really about what the no gives us the opportunity to say yes to. A boundary around your time may keep you from answering emails at 9:00 pm, while a money boundary may involve creating a budget. Setting an energy boundary could be as simple as unfollowing a colleague on social media or changing the topic of conversation in the breakroom.

Stress-free may be a stretch, but with a few small steps, you can start the process of feeling better than before.

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