Silent night Print E-mail
News - Final Word
Friday, 04 December 2020 15:51
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This has been a tremendously challenging year for most of us and as we now enter the last stretch, the season of giving, many of us find ourselves numb, tired and with no desire or resources left to give anything to anyone else.

It has a name, this feeling – compassion fatigue. Clinical psychologist Elevia Aderinoye says, “It is important to talk about compassion fatigue in our current times because many individuals are coming to the aid of people with trauma and emotional distress and the helper needs to be aware of the impact and after-shock of assisting in these situations.”

Even if you haven’t been helping people, you have probably been bombarded with images and stories of tragedy and suffering. This has caused a sort of empathy overload and we’ve become desensitized.

The term ‘compassion fatigue’ was first coined in 1992 by Carla Joinson to describe the harmful impact hospital nurses were experiencing as a result of their repeated, daily exposure to patient emergencies.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), compassion fatigue is the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time.

Unlike burnout, which is caused by everyday work stresses, compassion fatigue results from taking on the emotional burden of a person’s pain, agony or trauma. It is also known as ‘second-hand shock’ or ‘negative cost of caring’.

Professionals who usually suffer from it range from doctors, nurses, palliative care workers, child protection workers, veterinarians and animal welfare workers to police officers and, yes, journalists. Family members of those who have a chronic illness often also experience compassion fatigue.

It is ironic, says psychologist Heidi Allespach, that caregivers can become so over-empathic that they eventually find themselves growing numb to their patients’ suffering. They become overwhelmed with the feelings of others, which can feel like drowning.

In our society, we applaud people who neglect their own self-care to help others, says Kerry A Schwanz. We praise those who work themselves to death, but rarely approve of those who take the day off. That’s why a website, which helps front-line workers deal with the Covid situation, recommends getting enough sleep, enough to eat, that you do some exercise, something pleasurable, focus on what you did well, pray, meditate or relax.

As the pandemic stretches on and on, we need to find out where we’re standing on the compassion fatigue scale. Psychologist Beth Hudnall Stamm developed a self-report tool, called ‘Professional Quality of Life’, which measures symptoms, such as tiredness, loss of productivity, intrusive thoughts, depression, jumpiness, feelings of being on edge or trapped, or the inability to separate personal and professional life. It also measures compassion satisfaction – the positive emotions associated with helping others to heal.

Kelly Noonan Gores, director of the ‘Heal’ documentary series, says that the first step on any healing journey is acceptance. It is as it is. But please take note that acceptance doesn’t mean approval. Still, there is a fine line between acceptance (read: non-resistance) and apathy, and many of us are heading towards apathy precisely because we’re over-empathic.

So, how do you keep feeling your emotions without drowning in them? After all, Milan Kundera, author of ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’, says that there is nothing heavier than compassion. Andrew Boyd says that compassion hurts. When you feel connected to everything, you also feel responsible for everything. And you cannot turn away.

I think the trick is to let go of self-importance so that we can see that we’re all at some stage receivers and at another stage givers; healers and wounded.

“Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals,” says Pema Chödrön. “Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others.”

And only then, as Andrew Boyd says, can you grow strong enough to love the world, yet empty enough to sit down at the same table with its worst horrors. Empty as in still, girlfriend – the way the eye of a tornado must feel.

May we all find stillness this Christmas. Our own silent night. May it be silent enough so that we can hear our hearts opening up again. Love, peace and joy to you and yours, dearest girlfriend!

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