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.

Finding Your True Purpose

Tami Simon recently interviewed Stephen Cope, author of the book, The Great Work of Your Life: A Guide for the Journey to Your True Calling.  Stephen has also produced an eight-week course, Your True Calling, which is available online at Sounds True.

In the interview podcast, Stephen addressed the question, “How do I find my true calling and make a difference in the world?”  This question can be phrased in action terms, “How can I work out how to act in the world in line with my true purpose?”

At the outset, Stephen addresses the very real issue of what he calls, “doubt paralysis”.  We can be frozen in doubt, unable to take a step forward and uncertain that what we are doing is the right thing for us to do.  This can lead to “paralysed action” – where we are not taking up the numerous opportunities to move forward, but standing still.

Determining a path of action in line with your true purpose

Stephen draws on the famous book, Bhagavad Gita, to provide some guidelines on how to find your true calling and head off on an action path that aligns with it.  In the process, he discusses the “four-stage path of action” described in the Bhagavad Gita.  I discuss these four stages below in terms of discernment, alignment, release and elevation.

  1. Discernment – ascertaining your true purpose by identifying what is unique about you, your past life and experience and your special skills and talents.  An associated question is, “What are you uniquely equipped to do?”  The present stage of your life, your location and conditions in your external environment, can point the way for your unique contribution in the world.  Meditation practice can help you clarify your true purpose.
  2. Alignment – focusing all your energies on your identified life purpose.  Stephen calls this stage “unified action”.  It is about aligning all your activities behind your unique calling – letting go of some things you currently do and intensifying your commitment to others that are more aligned to what you want to contribute to the world.  Integration or unification of action brings with it a focus and concentration of effort which, in turn, attracts support and resources.  You begin to see things that can support your endeavours – things that you did not notice before.
  3. Release – Stephen describes this stage as “letting go of outcomes”.  This requires being free of specific goals and avoiding measuring yourself against them.  It entails not judging your success by whether or not you achieve specific outcomes.  Outcome focus can feed your doubts, particularly if you make a mistake at some point.  The release comes from letting go of fixation with outcomes and moving forward in line with your purpose.  Desired outcomes will be achieved if you realise alignment with your discerned purpose.
  4. Elevation – Stephen suggests that this stage involves turning everything over to the divine, however you define divinity.  If you are not spiritually orientated, it means finding a higher purpose beyond yourself and your activity that you can relate to.  This may mean linking into a individual or group that has a purpose aligned to yours but are taking action on a more global basis.

As you grow in mindfulness through different forms of meditation practice, you will gain clarity about your life’s purpose and attract support and resources to enable you to achieve alignment of your activities and release from the shackles of doubt and an outcome focus.

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

Image source: courtesy of cocoparisienne 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.

Awareness: Managing Difficult Situations

Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, when discussing their Awareness Training Institute, spoke of the power of awareness to help us manage life’s difficult situations.

They each discussed situations that they had experienced that challenged their personal resources and capacity to cope.

A difficult situation may entail dealing with grief, feeling totally inadequate in the face of a challenging health condition, experiencing intense fear over diagnosis of a chronic health condition or feeling depressed by a physical disability that prevents you from doing the activities that give you satisfaction and joy.

Jack and Tara explained that they use a metaphor to help people tap into the power of awareness for managing difficult challenges.  The metaphor they use is “ocean and waves”.  The ocean is the depth of personal resources and abounding love that we have access to, while the waves are life’s challenges that create disturbances in the otherwise peaceful ocean.

They maintain that through awareness training, you are able to ride out the waves and rest in the ocean of your personal resources and surrounding love.  Awareness enables you to step back and see yourself experiencing pain, fear or depression and to accept the situation for what it is.

Awareness brings with it increased personal resources and the capacity to immerse yourself in the love and kindness that surrounds you.  Tara and Jack report that, through developing skills in awareness, they have been able to help people in hospice situations to experience calm and peace despite facing their impending death.

As Tara Brach explained:

So that’s one of the blessings I’ve found over and over again in this [awareness] practice is that I might have a reactivity to different difficult circumstances and, without too much lag time now, there’s this remembrance of, “Oh, just stay. Just meet this with these two wings of noticing what’s happening and kindness, and in time – it’s not always right away – there’ll be a relaxing back open into a real space of presence and a feeling of, ‘There’s room for this.'”

As we grow in mindfulness and awareness, we are better able to manage difficult personal situations and do that sooner.

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