My first compassion fatigue episode

I hear about compassion fatigue in my training.  I only realize how quickly it can sneak up on you after I have started intensively seeing patients.  It took all but a week and half.

I remember I started having a couple, a family(of mom and daughter) and my first women’s group all in 1 week.  I felt quite good about each one of those sessions.  I have learned by then that I do not have to be perfect to feel good about something I did.  It only took 30 plus years.  I had also learned to splice my to do list in such a way that I managed to finish most of my tasks within the allotted time.  So I did not feel incomplete at the end of the work day, even if I had quite a long list.

However, even as the physical fatigue came and went, the emotional toll was building up. I remember the Sunday that I did give myself off, I felt quite emotional.  In retrospect, it was so clear there was some pain that needed to come out.  My joints were not aching. My back was not hurting.  But the pressure bore by the heart wanted some release.   All the people I have listened to and emphasized with took a lot from me.  I had passed love and positive energy to them with my undivided attention and positive regard.  The stronger my emphathetic power the more energy transfer I will enable.  Therefore I absorbed some of those sad, negative and at times painful energy.  With a bruised heart, I was especially in need of some emotional support.  It was no surprise then when my partner was too tired for our date night, as we each have demanding jobs, I felt neglected.  When we are each at our brink of physical and emotional exhaustion, what I want is connection and what he wants is space.   This is a very common difference in the way we each refuel; yet it just often left the partner who wants contact(in this case me),  feeling wanting.

Then I started to commit the typical cognitive errors someone on an emotional roller coaster is prone to: to pour a lot of negativity that I have stored up into the disappointment and turning my hurt feelings into anger.  Then I fell into “all or nothing” trap, where I made what he missed into an eternal and constant fault while discounting anytimes in memory that he has done otherwise.  It is a physically natural response to highlight the negative when someone feels emotionally under threat.  And a missed connection can certainly feel like my emotional survival is under attack when I am already tired and in pain.   Having had some professional training didn’t make me completely vaccinated against such fallacy.  The number of rational neural pathway helped me realize my reasoning was off even during my emotional outburst. It didn’t eliminate it completely.  It has many times before, but it is not a perfect machine like anything in life.  However, I recovered a few hours later during the day after having plenty of rest and grounding exercises with myself.

I immediately set about reducing my hours and schedule more supervision and break during the day and week after that experience.

I am sharing this story to let everyone, my fellow therapists/coaches and clients, that we do not have to be perfect.  I have known plenty of counselors who ran into emotional crisis themselves, lawyers who missed a clause in their own contract with a fraudster, or doctors who forgot their own advice to patients about salt intake.  What makes us stronger is not that we remember what we are supposed to do all the time.  Instead, it is the kindness to ourselves in those less than glorious hours that will allow us to refuel faster.  And if our fall from Grace hurt anyone close to us, it is never too late to apologize and repair afterwards.  But first, we must repair and catch ourselves.

Leave a Reply