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Holding Space to Counter Compassion Fatigue

Allow me a moment to repeat one of my better known quotes: “Presence is not a privilege, it’s a necessity.”

Presence is intentional and deliberate. It doesn’t just happen without taking the time to allow ourselves to fully bring our minds, bodies and spirits into any moment that we occupy. And the root of being present is understanding how to embody authentic compassion.

Compassion is aligned with the cornerstone of the virtues needed to heal humanity.

The catch is that this does not come without its challenges as compassion can deplete your energy before you have any awareness that you are running on fumes. As human beings, we have a limited capacity to give without replenishing and nourishing our own spirits before we find ourselves coasting on empty.

Remaining present may be our intention especially when what we care about is part of our passion and purpose, but there has to be a balance - being aware and receptive at all times can take a heavy toll.

We can feel the numbness to the suffering of others creep up on us. Take school shootings for example: not too long ago, hearing of a shooting on a campus would send our entire nation into a period of mourning, but if the Columbine shooting happened today, the sentiment from many of us would be a simple “oh how awful!” as we continued on with our day.

The day to day tragedies that are a finger scroll away still create a strong visceral response in me, yet sadly, I’ve come to expect them. I’ve not reached the point where I can move past them quickly when I hear the news. I pray that day never comes. I do not want to give in to the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness that risks turning into apathy and cynicism and, eventually, numbness.

One look at the current affairs of the world would make it clear that we are a world low on empathy, and it feels to me that our reserves are running dangerously low.

This phenomenon is called 'compassion fatigue’. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it is a clinical condition that was brought into prominence in the late eighties by Dr Charles Figley. He defined the condition as “a state of exhaustion and dysfunction, biologically, physiologically and emotionally, as a result of prolonged exposure to compassion stress.”

Experiencing compassion fatigue can lead someone to disconnect from their current environment, affect their sleep cycles, cause them to be irritable or anxious, have a negative attitude towards life, and impair their ability to feel the plight of another.The essential idea at the core of this is that like pleasure can be felt vicariously, so can be trauma.

What is the reason that we are all so affected by compassion fatigue? We might not have to look further away from the screens of our smartphones to find the reason. The constant barrage of information that gets fed into our brains on a daily basis is overwhelming. Gone are the days when there was just Facebook. Now we are constantly juggling between our various social media platforms, from Twitter to Instagram, and the onslaught of breaking news updates.

It is human for us to process the grief of our family, friends, or even neighbours; but being open to being present and to develop the capacity to process the plight of millions of people takes intentional inner work.

Without understanding how to manage our own internal responses we will short circuit our system.

Compassion fatigue is a complex and nuanced stress-related disorder that we are only beginning to understand, but we need help managing it now - so how?

For all stress-related disorders, it goes without saying that the stress can be alleviated, even if slightly, if the stressor is removed.

If you take a soldier out of a conflict zone, they might still have PTSD but their mental health will slightly improve. Similarly, if social media is the stressor, we have to make a conscious choice to log off from it, physically and psychologically. I think about the daily stress that is one of many challenges of being BIPOC in the United States and globally where the subtle and not so subtle microaggressions are a part of our daily lives. The medical field is just beginning to track some of the negative health conditions that are associated with these stressors.

When accustomed to being in the loop all the time it might feel difficult initially to scale back. Fundamentally, when our compassion stores are at risk, it is worth the effort. If completely shutting down doesn’t seem like an option, we can also opt to ‘curate’ our social media feeds to be more mental health friendly and learn to heed “trigger warnings” by not taking in content that might tip off our stress levels.

Ignoring the pain of being aware of the deep levels of inequity, injustice and suffering is not what I am recommending here. There is no way around it, no way over or under it; the only authentic way to be a part of the solution is to understand how to go through it. Managing your capacity for holding the pain and suffering that exist in the world is part of being human.

We are all connected, therefore just pretending it’s not happening does nothing to heal humanity. Learning how to heal ourselves is a good first step. Prioritizing self-care, whatever that means for you is essential. You cannot give what is no longer inside you. Check your compassion and empathy stores before they run out. Give yourself permission to reserve your energy for things you care about. Remember your indulges and partake without guilt or reservation. Self care replenishes your energy to give another day.

At the end of the day, if we want to leave a better world for the generations to come after us we must be able to ‘care’ about the future. As the saying goes, ‘Charity begins at home.’ If we cannot be kind to our own bodies, minds and spirits by granting ourselves permission to rest, can we honestly have the kindness needed to show another?

It might feel selfish or counter-intuitive to focus on yourself in pursuit of caring more for others, but looking after yourself is the only way to assure you have the energy reserves to stay present in the long-run. Compassion is a marathon - pace yourself.

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