Compassion Fatigue: Taking Care of Your Therapist Self

I woke up in the middle of the night with my heart racing and sweat pouring. In my dream, my friend had tried to attempt suicide and somehow as her only ‘therapist’ friend, I had let the signs slip by me. Upon waking, I immediately called my friend without even a flicker of thought that it was 4 am. She had never complained about any emotional/psychological challenges and was in a good space mentally. After hearing her sleepy voice and ensuring that she was alive and well, I was finally able to get a few hours of unperturbed sleep.
While discussing this incident with my therapist (yes, therapists have therapists), the concept of “compassion fatigue” came up. Compassion fatigue, or the “cost of caring”, refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when those extending a helping hand are unable to refuel and regenerate. Mental Health Professionals (MHP) are known to experience this at least once in their careers, if not more.
It is a no-brainer to gauge that the current pandemic has given rise to a host of anxiety and stress-related issues which have hiked the responsibilities of all Mental Health Professionals. And I was no exception to this. While I was ‘out there’ caring for others, I was ignoring what is happening ‘in here’. My sleep schedule was already disturbed along with the constant sense of exhaustion that refused to leave my side. And the recent death of Sushant Singh Rajput was the final trigger which led to my disturbing dream.
According to my therapist, I was experiencing secondary trauma, which happens when a clinician is exposed to trauma, indirectly through the voice of others. This made sense because what I was experiencing didn’t just account for my feelings regarding his demise, but I could hear a glimpse of various voices of my clients and how they processed this event during their sessions. It all felt overwhelming and exaggerated, each feeling seeming to be bigger and more intense for one person to feel. More so because it wasn’t meant for one person to feel it all.
What stands true is that among other things, this pandemic has propelled us to cast a spotlight on mental health and its implications, helping to break the stigma around it. Death and destruction on the macro level have led us to the path of finding solutions on the micro-level. And while this is a great step for the field of mental health, this sudden spotlight has weighed heavy on the shoulders of the already few and overextended mental health professionals.
As therapists, we make sure we have a solid support system of supervision, personal therapy, family/friends, and a basket full of self-care rituals to help us tide through our fatigues and burnouts. But, given the current situation, where almost every person in the world is at an edge, our self-care is no longer our topmost priority. It is something we believe we have no time for and have conveniently placed on a side burner.
I was physically, but more importantly, emotionally exhausted. There were days where I was unable to feel or do anything, choosing to stay on the bed and stare at the wall. The empath in me required a refuel or my clients were in the danger of facing the brunt of an emotionally unavailable therapist. My therapist suggested dipping into my self-care basket, and I chose the medium of movement to express the emotions that had overwhelmed me to the point of numbness. I took a day off to let the music move me to the point of emotional expression. With the help of my supervisor, I reduced my workload just for a few weeks to make time and space for myself and to acknowledge my needs. This was something I had to do to keep my glass full. It would’ve been impossible for me to serve others with an empty glass right?
Using therapy, supervision, and movement, I was able to start refilling the cup of empathy and compassion we therapists hold so dearly. And this served as a reminder that self-care is not just for our clients to indulge in, but it’s for each one of us. With this, I want to send a gentle message to all the mental health professionals out there;
“Dear MHPs, I know our empathy and compassion is at an all-time high, that our need to provide a safe space to those around us might be topping over everything else; but please do not forget to check-in with yourself daily. Practice the self-care we so frequently remind our clients to think about. Treat yourself with the same compassion and support that you so freely give to others.”
The year 2020 might remain a very strong trigger for a majority of us in the years to come. The amount of trauma (both collective and individual) we all have felt might stay with us longer than we care to admit. But, I have always believed that to create something new, destruction is necessary. And this year feels like that destruction upon which we will all birth a more aware and sustainable future.
Therefore, as all of us choose to take care of ourselves first, I only hope that we can provide space for those who take care of us to take care of themselves as well so that the responsibility of providing care falls on all of us and not only on a few.
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3 years ago

Nicely written article Mehr….People who help others, also need help sometimes. After all, we all are in the process of continuos evolution😇