Many of us think we’re feeling burn-out with our jobs when we’re actually feeling compassion fatigue. Two terms for the same thing? Here’s how you recognize the difference. Burn-out always arises from dissatisfaction with your work environment. It’s generally because of supervisors, poor working conditions, low pay, and/or the relationships you have with the people at work. Compassion fatigue arises from the work that you do.
Compassion fatigue is a more user friendly term for Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is nearly identical to Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), except it affects those emotionally affected by the trauma of another. Charles Figley, professor of Disaster Mental Health at Tulane University’s School of Social Work and coauthor of Compassion Fatigue in the Animal Care Community says, “It’s the burden of caring. It’s the psychosocial sadness we take with us. It’s the stress of dispensing compassion.”
The solution to burn-out is pretty straight forward: find another job. However, the residual emotional effects of intense medical experiences such as euthanasia aren’t so easily solved. Dr. Kristin Neff, associate professor in Human Development and Culture at the University of Texas thinks self-compassion is at the heart of relieving compassion fatigue. She says self-compassionate people tend to be gentle with themselves when confronted with painful experiences. When people try to deny or resist their reactions to painful experiences, emotional suffering escalates into stress, frustration and self-criticism.
People who find it easy to be supportive and understanding to others – including their animal patients – often berate themselves for their own self-perceived shortcomings. Research suggests that giving ourselves a break and accepting our imperfections may be the first step toward better health. People who score high on tests of self-compassion have less depression and anxiety, and tend to be happier and more optimistic.
For those low on the self-compassion scale, Dr. Neff suggests a set of exercises — like writing yourself a letter of support, just as you might to a friend you are concerned about. She says to include in the letter a list of your best traits, and add steps you might take to help you feel better about yourself.
“The problem is that it’s hard to unlearn habits of a lifetime,” she says about our tendency to equate self-compassion with self-indulgence. “People have to actively and consciously develop the habit of self-compassion.”
For more information about Dr Kristin Neff’s work in self-compassion, visit http://www.self-compassion.org/