When Counselors and Other Helpers Don’t Make Time for Self-Care

It has been called many things: compassion fatigue, empathy overload, secondary traumatic stress, and vicarious trauma.  It is what some counselors, therapists, first responders, doctors, nurses and other professionals or volunteers experience when they open their hearts every day to absorb the trauma and pain of others, while trying to help guide them through to healing. To be a great support person it requires the ability to have empathy and with that comes the risk of experiencing physical, mental and spiritual exhaustion.

While compassion fatigue can happen when helpers are unable to replenish and restore emotionally and physically (Figley, 1982), vicarious trauma is the shift you experience mentally from compassion fatigue (Perlman and Saakvitne, 1995). This shift has been identified as the altering of your perceptions and feelings towards the world around you. An example of this is police officers who have a hard time seeing the good in the world after years of helping victims of crime. Or the crisis counselor whose faith in humanity begins to deteriorate after supporting people in crisis for many years. You could say that compassion fatigue is the precursor to vicarious trauma that has been going on for too long. Many people don’t recognize the signs of compassion fatigue.

Signs of Compassion Fatigue can include:

  • Mood changes
  • Exhaustion both mentally and physically
  • Sleeping issues
  • Feeling burnt out
  • Irritability
  • Unable to turn off the work mind
  • Depression and anxiety
  • No resources or healthy outlets for self-care
  • Shifts in feelings towards clients (negative)
  • Absenteeism

Eleven years ago, I worked for an organization that experienced a traumatic event that affected our clients, staff, and community. A tragedy that sent me on the brink of a mental health crisis. With a heavy load of unresolved personal issues, feelings of powerlessness over clients I wanted deeply to help, I lacked a self-care plan that could render me resilient while doing my job. I walked away from a career I loved and spent the next few years suffering from compassion fatigue, not knowing if I would ever feel like myself again.

Most of us that are helpers choose our jobs and roles because of a deep and profound desire to make a difference in people’s lives. Knowing how to manage trauma exposure, identify your emotional experience limits, and having a support network are necessary tools to thrive as a helper. Too often though, we believe that we are already equipped to deal with other people’s issues and that our certifications and degrees come with an invisible armor protecting us from any harm. This false sense of security prevents us from identifying the symptoms and warning signs of compassion fatigue. I missed the signs and symptoms eleven years ago that were building up over time. My job was to take care of others and I told myself every day that I was fine. I believed my joy came from helping others and that’s what was most important. Those beliefs and values sent me spiraling into depression and anxiety and left me with very little energy for myself.  

I have since learned that saving others before you save yourself does not make you a hero. It makes you a villain to yourself.  Forgetting to self-care because you channel all your energy and time towards others deprives you of your own peace and serenity. The essence of life fades from within you when you don’t take the time for yourself.  I heard long ago that when you are a helper you need to remember to put on your oxygen mask first, just like they instruct you when you are on an airplane. Putting the oxygen mask on someone else and forgetting to put it on ourselves means that others will be able to breathe with our help, but we can’t. Not being able to breathe is what happened to me. My anxiety attacks raged, and I couldn’t breathe. I had to learn to put on my oxygen mask every day before I put it on others as part of my self-care routine. Every morning I take time to pray, read daily reflections, meditate and set my intentions for the day. 

Other Ways to Self-Care Through Compassion Fatigue:

  • Therapy
  • Exercise
  • Delegate job responsibilities
  • Learn to say no
  • Engage in a hobby
  • Take notice of the signs of compassion fatigue
  • Ask for help
  • Have someone to debrief with after helping

When I take time for me, I am reminding myself that I matter too and even though I may know that mentally, I have to engage in my physical routine because my instinct is to care for others first. When I get away from my routine and start my day focusing on other people, I immediately feel the disconnect from me and know I need to start my day over. 

Learning to take care of myself allows me to be there for others without losing myself. I am a better helper now than I ever was back when compassion fatigue took hold. The lesson I had to learn was not to deny myself of self-care because I am too busy helping. Self-care is a necessary part of life that allows you to genuinely help others to breathe easier without depriving yourself of oxygen. 

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