Can Your Experience Compassion Fatigue?

Kelly McGonigal in her presentation for the Mindful Healthcare Summit challenged the widely held belief that you cannot experience compassion fatigue. Many people contend that compassion fatigue does not occur because the heart is capable of endless kindness and love for others. Kelly maintains that motivation and goodness of heart are not sufficient to prevent the depression and burnout that can result from compassion fatigue. She asserts that compassion has to be supported by adequate self-care if it is to be sustained.

Compassion and the stress response

Kelly argues that compassion is like the stress response when viewed physiologically. Compassion floods the body with hormones such as dopamine and marshals the body’s energy to relieve the suffering of others. However, while this can be very energising and exciting in the short term, compassion takes its toll in the longer term both bodily and mentally, as we do not have endless physical and mental reserves.

The possibility of compassion fatigue can be increased where a helping professional or carer experiences vicarious trauma or moral distress – the latter being defined as being required to do things that clash with a person’s values or moral perspective, a frequently occurring ethical dilemma within the medical profession.

Compassion fatigue

Kelly suggests that compassion fatigue occurs when a person lacks the energy and resources to pursue their motivation to care in such way that it achieves personal satisfaction (activates the reward system). Outcomes achieved fall short of personal expectations and/or the expectations of others, despite the strength of the caring intention. The compassionate person feels exhausted and feels that the more they give the less they experience satisfaction – the gap between input of energy/time and the expected satisfaction increases, leading to burnout. The depletion of energy and satisfaction could be the result of factors outside the helper’s/carer’s control – such as structural blockages, breakdown in information exchange, overwork or under-resourcing.

Compassion needs nourishment

One of the issues that exacerbates the problem of compassion fatigue is the belief in the endless capacity of an individual to be compassionate through the goodness of their heart or the purity of their intentions. As a result of this false belief, helpers/carers fail to take the necessary actions to nourish themselves (and their compassionate action) and/or are reluctant to accept compassion extended to them by others.

Personal nourishment can take many forms – getting adequate sleep, meditation (especially self-compassion meditation), listening to relaxing/inspiring music, prayer (whatever form it takes) or drawing strength and healing from nature. It also requires an openness to receiving compassion from others – challenging false beliefs such as “no one else can do this”, “I will be seen to be weak if I accept help from others”, “I really shouldn’t pander to my own needs by having that short break or having a reasonable period for lunch”, “I can’t afford to become dependent on others for assistance”. Additionally, positive social connection– to offset the tendency to withdraw under extreme stress– is a critical source of self-nourishment.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation our awareness of others’ suffering and our motivation to help are heightened. The capacity for compassionate action is not limitless and needs nourishment. Central to this nourishment is self-compassion.

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Image by DarkWorkX from Pixabay

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Compassion: Exploring “Where Does it Hurt?”

Tara Brach in presenting during the encore of the Mindful Leadership Summit, discussed the nature of compassion and how to develop it through mindfulness.  Tara’s talk was titled, “Radical Compassion: Awakening Our Naturally Wise & Loving Hearts“.  She highlighted the fact that our limbic system (emotional part of our brain) often blocks our compassion.  She offered a short meditation to help us to get in touch with understanding ourselves and to free up our “naturally loving” and compassionate heart.

Perpetuating the “Unreal Other”

Tara spoke about our tendency, and her own, to negatively impact close relationships through treating the other person as an “unreal other”.  This involves being blind to their existence and needs because of our pursuit of our own needs for reassurance, confirmation of our own worth, sense of power and control or many other emotional needs that arise from our desire to protect our self-esteem.   This preoccupation with fulfilling our own needs leads to judging others, instead of showing compassion towards them.

At the same time, we are captured by the “shoulds” that play out in our minds through social conditioning.   The “shoulds” tell us what we should do or look like, how to behave or what to say.  These mental messages perpetuate self-judgment which, in turn, blocks our sensitivity to the needs of others and our compassionate action.  Mindfulness can help us to get in touch with this constant negative self-evaluation and open the way for our compassionate action.

The difference between compassion and empathy

Tara pointed out that compassion arises out of mindfulness, whereas empathy engages our limbic (emotional) system.  Too much empathy can lead to burnout, resulting from taking on the pain and suffering of others.  She points out that neuroscience demonstrates that compassion and empathy light up different parts of the brain.  Compassion engages the neo-cortex and is linked to our motor system – compassion is about understanding another’s pain and taking action to redress it.  Empathy is another form of “resonance” but it results in immersion in another’s pain.

A short meditation: “Where does it hurt?”

Tara offered a brief meditation to help us to get in touch with how the limbic system sabotages our compassion.  The meditation begins with recalling an interaction that upset us or made us angry.  Once we have this firmly in our recollection, we can then explore what was going on for us. What made us angry and what does this say about our response?  What emotions were at play for us?  Were we experiencing fear, shame, disappointment or some other emotion?  What deeply-felt, but hidden need drove this emotion?  If we can get in touch with this emotion and the need underlying it, we are better placed to be open to compassion.

Once we can get in touch with our own needs and how they play out in our interactions, we can begin to understand that similar needs and reactions are playing out for those we interact with.  Tara points out that we all have “a foot caught in a trap”.  For some, it may be the weight of expectations or anxiety over doing the right thing; for others, it may be grief over a recent loss or the pain and stigma of sexual abuse.  Once we move beyond self-absorption, we can recognise the pain of others and extend a helping, compassionate hand.   We can ask them, “Where does it hurt?, and we can be more sensitive to their response because we have explored our own personal hurts.

As we grow in mindfulness, we can better understand ourselves, our needs and the hidden drivers of our emotions and responses in interactions with others.  This will pave the way for us to be open to compassionate action towards others, including those who are close to us.

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By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of eliola on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Compassion and Neuroscience

In her presentation for the Mindfulness & Meditation Summit, Kelly McGonigal discussed The Neuroscience of Compassion.  Kelly is the author of The Science of Compassion and The Upside of Stress.

Kelly maintains that for compassion to be realised and sustained, the following six conditions must be present:

  1. awareness and recognition of suffering
  2. feeling of concern for, and connection to, the one who is suffering
  3. desire to relieve suffering
  4. belief that you can make a difference
  5. willingness to respond or take action
  6. warm glow/sense of satisfaction

She spoke about how compassion unfolds in the body, a mind-body state that has been verified by neuroscience.  Throughout her presentation she drew heavily on a neuroscience model of compassion developed by Ashar, Andrews-Hanna, Dimidjian & Wager (2016).  This systems-based model of the brain shows how the core functions of compassion are manifest in different parts of the brain, and each function can activate multiple parts of the brain simultaneously.

The three core functions identified in the neuroscience model of compassion are:

  1. Social cognition
  2. Visceral/emotional empathy
  3. Reward motivation

Social cognition has to do with the cognitive aspect of our social interactions – in other words, “how people process, store, and apply information about other people and social situations”.  Visceral/emotional empathy, on the other hand, is the emotional response generated in us when we connect with, or feel concern for, someone who is suffering.  Reward motivation relates to the personal, intrinsic satisfaction – warm inner glow – experienced when we are compassionate (which serves as a motivator of compassion).

Kelly maintains that all three brain functions have to be present, and effective, for sustainable compassion towards others and they need to be in balance.

For example, what potentially impedes effective social cognition is “dehumanization” of the observed individuals as a result of “unconscious bias” influencing our perception of others who differ in race, age or gender, or even in the sporting team they support.  Kelly reports, as did Dr. Richie Davidson, that meditation practices – such as loving-kindness and compassion meditation – can reduce such implicit bias and provide a more balanced social cognition that is not blind to the suffering and needs of a particular group.

Visceral/emotional empathy has to be balanced with reward motivation that can occur with compassionate action.  Kelly reports research that shows that if people are trained in empathetic meditation, without experiencing the reward component of compassion, they can potentially experience “empathetic distress”- a form of emotional overload resulting, in part, from too close an identification with the sufferer without the reward relief experienced through compassionate action.

This last imbalance resulting in “empathetic distress” has been observed in people in helping roles in difficult situations, e.g. war arenas.  Where helpers do not experience, or stop experiencing, the intrinsic rewards of compassionate action, they are prone to “burnout”.  Burnout occurs when we exhaust our reserve energies as a result of trying to close the gap between effort and intrinsic reward, in other words, we start working harder and harder for less and less positive outcome – we perceive that we are ceasing to make a difference.  Research has been shown that for sustainable compassionate action in these difficult arenas, helpers need to experience “reward motivation” – the intrinsic satisfaction sometimes experienced as  a warm inner glow.

Another important insight from neuroscience mentioned by Kelly is that we do not need to have self-compassion to be compassionate towards others.  Increasingly, compassion towards others is seen as an innate human capacity.  On the other hand, we seem to create all kinds of barriers to self-compassion such as fear, anxiety or anger.   Kelly maintains that the biggest barrier to self-compassion is the absence of the reward satisfaction when people feel the suffering of others, but do not experience the warm glow from taking action that makes a difference to someone’s suffering.

In summary, as we grow in mindfulness through loving-kindness and compassionate meditation, we can reduce our unconscious biases, free ourselves from the inertia of “empathetic distress” and open our minds and bodies to compassionate action resulting in reward motivation that will sustain that compassion over time.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: Courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Build Resilience Through Mindfulness

Linda Graham, in her book, Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, defines resilience as:

the capacity to respond to pressures and tragedies quickly, adaptively and effectively.

Shawn Anchor and Michelle Gielan in a HBR article suggest that resilience is about “how you recharge, not how you endure”. They argue that the misconception about resilience and endurance has led to the exponential rise in the “workaholic” with devastating effects on health, productivity and family relationships.

I have worked in many organisations where management has stated that staff needs to become “more resilient” when the staff were not coping with excessive workloads and unrealistic time pressures.  This perspective incorrectly equates resilience with endurance and potentially leads to burnout.

As Linda Graham notes, resilience is more about our capacity to “bounce back” from setbacks and this requires us to recharge our batteries on an ongoing basis. It also requires re-wiring our brains so that we overcome negative self perceptions and fear-inducing perceptions of daily occurences.

Neuroscience research has demonstrated that when we grow mindfulness and develop the capacity to be fully in the present moment, we can alter our brains and reshape our perecptions.  In the process, we can build our resilience.

Image Source: courtesy of makamukio on Pixabay