Compassion is the “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it” (Merriam-Webster, 2017). Dictionary.com states that compassion is “a feeling of distress and pity for the suffering or misfortune of another, often including the desire to alleviate it” (“Compassion,” 2017).
This issue of Counselor focuses on counselor self-care issues, which includes compassion fatigue—also known as secondary traumatic stress—burnout, and stress as applied to frontline practitioners in the addiction and mental health field.
In her article, “Addiction Counselors in the Compassion Fatigue Cycle,” Kathie Erwin, EdD, points out that compassion fatigue is far more than “burnout,” a somewhat glorified term of yesteryear:
Compassion fatigue is not confined to counselors who work on the front lines of a disaster or in other settings with traumatized clients. The nature of vicarious or secondary traumatization is not linked to a place, a situation or any direct proximity to the trauma incident. It can catch counselors by surprise to be catapulted into an almost imperceptible moment of transference when clients’ traumatic experiences cross over into the psyche of counselors.
So what exactly is compassion fatigue?
The American Institute of Stress (AIS) defines compassion fatigue as “the emotional residue or strain of exposure to working with those suffering from the consequences of traumatic events” (2017). Further, AIS states that while compassion fatigue “differs from burnout,” it “can occur due to exposure on one case or can be due to a ‘cumulative’ level of trauma” (2017).
The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP) explains,
Studies confirm that caregivers play host to a high level of compassion fatigue. Day in, day out, workers struggle to function in care giving environments that constantly present heart wrenching, emotional challenges. Affecting positive change in society, a mission so vital to those passionate about caring for others, is perceived as elusive, if not impossible. This painful reality, coupled with first-hand knowledge of society’s flagrant disregard for the safety and well-being of the feeble and frail, takes its toll on everyone from full time employees to part time volunteers. Eventually, negative attitudes prevail.
Compassion Fatigue symptoms are normal displays of chronic stress resulting from the care giving work we choose to do. . . . A strong identification with helpless, suffering, or traumatized people or animals is possibly the motive. It is common for such people to hail from a tradition of . . . other-directed care giving. Simply put, these are people who were taught at an early age to care for the needs of others before caring for their own needs. Authentic, ongoing self-care practices are absent from their lives (2017).
Clearly, addiction and mental health professionals are susceptible to suffer from compassion fatigue, particularly when they treat those who have suffered extensive trauma.
Charles R. Figley, editor of Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized, states that, “There is a cost to caring. Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care. Sometimes we feel we are losing our sense of self to the clients we serve. . . . Those who have enormous capacity for feeling and expressing empathy tend to be more at risk of compassion stress” (1995).
Another article in this issue, alcohol and drug counselor Derrick Crim, EdD, concludes from his study that organizations share responsibility for counselor stress and burnout. His findings emphasized how the need for competence and an inability to control demanding roles and expectations caused stress among licensed alcohol and drug counselors. The study found that workloads, family-work conflict, and workplace racism affected counselors’ confidence. Further, it is suggested that positive values and role models within the organization may help counselors become more proficient and gain new skills and competencies.
Two more articles in this issue look at the other side of counselor self-care: stress and burnout.
In their article, “Congruence as Self-Care: Practicing What We Preach,” Ryan Thomas Neace, MA, and Jeffrey Kottler, PhD, point out that, ultimately, self-care is about an attitude, a cherished belief that we can only do our best work taking care of others when we also take care of ourselves.
Elisabeth Crim, PhD, sums it up best in her article, “Providing Self-Care through Conscious, Balanced Relationships”:
To be a psychotherapist, counselor, healer, and helper is a rich and wondrous calling. We can continue to enjoy our journey as healers and live vibrant lives throughout our many roles and relationships if we can heal relationally, become more conscious, balance our attunement to others with attunement to ourselves, and learn to live life in a manner that is relationally genuine, fulfilled, vibrant, and free.
American Institute of Stress (AIS). Definitions. Retrieved from https://www.stress.org/military/for-practitionersleaders/compassion-fatigue/
“Compassion.” (2017). Retrieved from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/compassion?s=t
Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (CFAP). (2017). What is compassion fatigue? Retrieved from http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/compassionfatigue.html
Figley, C. R. (1995). Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized. New York, NY: Routledge.
Merriam-Webster. (2017). Compassion. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/compassion