You open yourself up to the pain of others, in order to be a true companion for them, a comforting presence in the middle of a terrible experience. You can tell it helps them, sometimes, to share their pain with you – someone who understands and cares. And as you share of yourself so generously with more and more people, you find that it is taking a toll on you. It is exhausting to experience so much secondhand suffering. It is draining. It sucks the color out of your own life, leaves you depleted, less able to connect with the next person and to enjoy your own life.
Compassion fatigue. Whether it’s the compassion in us that gets fatigued, or the fatigue caused because of compassion, the phrase rings true. Sometimes, compassion fatigue results in a growing internal resistance to witnessing the suffering of others. We avoid seeing them, hearing them, smelling them; and when we must, we avoid considering their suffering with any depth. Perhaps we think about their suffering as less meaningful somehow, or less real. Perhaps we distract ourselves as quickly as we can.
And when compassion fatigue runs its course, we are truly unable to appreciate the suffering of others. We become numb to it, and witnessing the agony of someone else stirs no greater a reaction in us than seeing a pebble fall and strike a rock. Throughout it all, our own joy becomes flatter, duller. We avoid the pain by blunting our ability to feel, and it becomes harder and harder to see the good and to believe in it.
Compassion fatigue is a form of depletion. Depletion happens when the rate of drain is greater than the rate of replenishment. So there are two things to do: Drain less, replenish more.
For those of us doing emotionally demanding work (including anybody at risk for compassion fatigue), managing our energy balance is critical. I mean “critical” in a literal sense, since neglecting our own emotional balance will result in compassion fatigue – and compassion fatigue is a serious flirt with serious depression, which will hurt our relationships, our ability to find meaning in our lives, our ability to have hope, and sometimes our desire to live.
Connecting with others is real work. It’s not inherently good or bad, right or wrong; just like hiking or singing or cooking or doing handstands, connecting with others takes energy and needs to be done in moderation. At some point, we need to take a break and recharge. By “recharge” I mean doing something that leaves us with more energy than we had when we started doing it. The actual activity that we do in order to recharge changes from one person to the next, and even within the same person. After a long solo hike, I like to eat with a friend. After listening deeply to the troubles of a friend, I like to quietly read a book.
Find out how you recharge. Schedule recharging activities. Then stick to your schedule.
Take your scheduled recharge activities very seriously. Your life may depend on it. Your relationships certainly do.
Witnessing the suffering of others takes a toll. The more we care, the more it hurts, and the more we are drained. Connecting with others who are suffering brings us even closer to their pain. Even more witnessing. Even more drain.
Climbing down into a dark hole, sitting there in the dank gloom with the other person and feeling into their pain is about as close as we can get to their pain without being the other person. And it is very draining. In fact, it’s draining twice: The effort of connecting at this intensity can be draining, and the experience of being connected to this pain is draining.
I think there are other ways to connect, which are less draining. I love the way Carl Rogers defined Empathic Accuracy:
“Accurate empathic understanding means that the therapist is completely at home in the universe of the patient. It is a moment-to-moment sensitivity that is in the “here and now,” the immediate present. it is a sensing of the client’s inner world of private personal meanings “as if” it were the therapist’s own, but without ever losing the ‘as if’ quality.”
The difference between this approach and the climb-into-the-hole approach is subtle. From the speaker’s perspective (the “patient” in the Rogers quote), the experience is very similar. Someone sees me, understands me, cares about me, is here with me now. From the listener’s perspective (the “therapist” in the Rogers quote), the experience is different in a key way: The listener is always aware that the speaker’s experience is not the listener’s actual experience. The “referred pain” (from the speaker’s experience to the listener’s experience) is diminished. And it’s this difference that makes it possible for the listener to remain connected to the speaker, to be a close and caring companion without becoming ensnared in the suffering, and to be able to do this repeatedly.
On the spectrum that runs from “Totally Separate” to “Totally Merged”, there is a point somewhere between those extremes that allows me to be connected and still differentiated. A magic balance point of being connected with your experience to a degree that helps you feel like you are not alone, that you are seen and known and cared for, without requiring me to feel the full extent of your pain.
We don’t have total control over where we end up on this spectrum in any given interaction – for example, talking with someone we are very close to, or about an experience that resonates strongly with us, will move us toward being more merged. But we do have some control, and we can practice so we can have even more. We can learn to care more about people that we wouldn’t normally care about so much, and we can learn to disentangle ourselves a little from the emotional reactions of people we care about a great deal (like spouses or family members), so we can be more intentional and helpful with them. Learning to ask “How merged am I right now?” is a good starting point for learning to tweak just how merged we are with another person.
But despite all this, I want to state clearly: To be present to suffering is draining. To interact with someone in pain and take any position other than “Totally Separate” is draining. And if you do this multiple times a day, with people experiencing a lot of suffering, then there will be significant drain.
Which means you must be very intentional about recognizing and respecting your limits and about recharging.
- When you are offering supportive listening, set a timer to go off every 2-5 minutes. When it goes off, ask yourself: How merged am I? Can I be less merged and still care?
- Make a list of recharging activities that can fit into your schedule. Look for activities that leave you feeling better than you did before doing them.
- Schedule 5 recharging activities for every week and honor that schedule as though your life depends on it.