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Are you burned out from giving too much?
In this edition of LIFEadvice, Coach Kim joins Marette Monson, LCSW, to explain compassion fatigue, what it is and how to recover from it. - photo by Kim Giles

I'm a social worker and am struggling to find the emotional energy to deal with the serious problems and people I deal with at work and have anything left for my family at night. I feel run down, less confident and my patience with my family is running thin. I think Im burned out. Do you have any advice since you are also dealing with people problems on a daily basis? How can I keep giving to others and not get so drained?


You are not alone on this one. To help me answer your question I called on Marette Monson, LCSW, an expert with compassion fatigue. This kind of serious burnout is a common problem with helping professionals of all types, including police officers, firefighters and therapists. Compassion fatigue also happens to individual citizens who are caregivers, parents or who have demanding church callings.

A 2009 survey by the American Psychological Association (Nursing and Health Sciences (2014), 16, 310.) reported that psychologists had depression at rates three times greater than the population they serve. Another study (Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, Vol. 23, No. 3, May 2010, 319_33) showed 100 percent of humanitarian aid workers reported symptoms of compassion fatigue. Health care workers, veterinarians and police officers had similar statistics. It is also difficult for helping professionals and caregivers to get help so they can continue to do the work they love. Most helping professionals face a stigma when or if they ask for help, and there are very few places in the community where they can go.

Monson has opened the Center for Counseling Excellence, and it is one of the only places in the United States where helping professionals can go for compassion fatigue treatment. She learned the accelerated recovery technique (ARP) from the nations leading expert, Dr. Eric Gentry, who created it to help professionals and others struggling with burnout. The ARP is much more than just tips on self-care to prevent the problems. It is a method for treating those who are experiencing compassion fatigue and it helps them recover and get their energy and motivation back.

Susan Gleason, LCSW, who also suffered from compassion fatigue, said, I want to make sure people know about compassion fatigue before they are right in the middle of it. When I was deep in compassion fatigue, I was losing weight, became horribly paranoid, and was acting in childish ways I would have never done in the past. I knew something wasnt right but I didnt know what to do about it. By then, it was so pervasive that I couldnt have figured out how to get out of it on my own. Its not just knowing about it, but also being able to prevent it from going too far. Even if you arent experiencing symptoms right now, you need to be able to see it happening in yourself or other people, because they wont be able to heal themselves.

Here is a link to a compassion fatigue checklist from Gleason, which may help you understand the symptoms to watch for. Go through it and see if the symptoms sound familiar.

Then, here are some tips from Monson, Gleason and me for preventing and overcoming compassion fatigue:

  1. Remember, its not just you. Helping others at this level can have negative effects on everyone. The act of helping others creates a drain on a persons emotional resources, which is normal and natural. It is not a sign of weakness or inadequacy. Stop blaming yourself for these feelings and dont push them aside. If left unaddressed, they can have disastrous effects for those we help, ourselves, and our families, and can eventually result in our inability to help others. Adding shame on top of fatigue will only make it worse. Give yourself some slack for being human like the rest of us.

  2. Understand self-care is not selfish. You are responsible for maintaining and refilling your emotional tank. If you dont do this, you will soon run dry and have nothing left to give. Some people struggle with self-care because they associate it with being lazy, self-indulgent or selfish. It is very important you dont think this way. Keeping your own tank full is not self-indulgent, it is wise. You perform better with a full tank. You are more creative, effective, giving and powerful when you are filled up emotionally. Self-care is a sign of self-respect. It is healthy. If people in your life dont get this, that is not your problem. If they resent you for taking time for yourself, they probably need better self-care too, but feel too guilty to take it.

  3. Set up healthy boundaries and make time for your needs. Figure out what a healthy schedule for a week should look like. Make a firm rule against sacrificing your self-care time for others. You are as important as they are. We all have the same value. Taking time each week to refresh yourself will mean more energy to give during the hours youve set aside to give. Start each day with some "me time." Even 20 minutes to exercise, read, meditate, pray or plan your day in peace and quiet will make a big difference.

  4. You cant help yourself the way you help others. Its OK to seek help from a professional in dealing with the negative effects of your service, even if you are a mental health professional. Interventions you use on others just dont work on yourself, and they arent meant to be done that way. If treating yourself were possible, dentists and doctors would be doing their own dental work and surgeries. We all need support from others. Give yourself permission to get some.

  5. Professional resilience is a maturation process. As we grow in our careers or our time as a caregiver, so does our perceptions about our work. Our perceptions change over time and create resilience so we can continue to help others in challenging circumstances. Allow your perceptions to be constantly challenged in order to create new growth. You should keep learning new ways to think healthy yourself. You will never reach a point when you know exactly what to do to help yourself or others. Keep learning and growing and never think you are done.

  6. Be realistic about what you can do. There is always more demand for your help than you can meet, and those receiving your help may never be satisfied or grateful enough for what you offer. After you meet the needs of one person, another will always take their place. It is impossible to meet all demands placed upon you, so dont measure your success by finally feeling caught up or done. Realize that a good stopping point will still leave many unmet needs you will have to get to another time. Stop trying to do it all all the time you cant.

  7. You are responsible for the quality of your work, not the outcome. Your job is to do your work and show up to the best of your ability, but the people you serve get to choose what they will do with your help. You may be the best caregiver or therapist on the planet, but they may still chose not to heed your advice. You are only responsible for your part, not whether your advice is actually used. Let the responsibility for changing their life rest on them. If they feel you carrying it, they may let you and this will not serve them. They are the only one who has the power to change their life. Remember that.

You can do this.
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