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A Powerful Antidote to Compassion Fatigue

I learned about burnout as a first-year grad student in social work. Through my work-study position, I was tasked with contacting alumni to see how they were using their degrees. What I discovered was how many were no longer in the field, over half having left within ten years. This was the mid-90’s and burnout studies mirrored my informal findings. So, in my second year, when meeting with an advisor about post-grad life, I asked for suggestions on how to avoid burnout. Her entire reply, “good luck with that!”

When I’ve shared this with peers from different caregiving fields, they’ve had similar tales. We were initiated into our roles within a cultural landscape that saw burnout as something most of us would simply fail to elude. “Compassion fatigue” wasn’t yet part of conversations.

Compassion fatigue came into my radar about ten years ago, during an immersion into self-compassion. A more nuanced understanding of burnout, I learned that compassion fatigue is what happens when we tend to the hurts of others, but not our own. Because we’re hardwired, (through mirror neurons) to feel what others feel, it’s unfortunately common for caregivers (professional and personal.) It can also express itself in difficult ways – depression, apathy, confusion, exhaustion, anger, substance abuse… to name a few.

Thankfully there’s a powerful antidote – self-compassion. A growing body of research indicates that something shifts when we meet ourselves with tenderness, in the midst of responding to others with care. We interrupt our body’s stress response system, engage our mammalian caregiving system, and eventually tend to feel better. We sometimes even move into what’s known as compassion satisfaction – the experience of making a positive and meaningful contribution.

What’s more, self-compassion can be learned. We all have the capacity to be kind to ourselves, and to experience the healing and restorative benefits of self-kindness. (Even if that capacity is currently buried beneath unhelpful conditioning.)

This simple breath practice offers a taste of what self-compassion can look and feel like. While it can be done as a formal meditation, it can also be called upon during caregiving moments.

Notice and feel into the nourishing nature of your inhalations.

Sense into and abide with the soothing nature of your exhalations.

Join Ashley, and Integrative Nurse Judy Ulibarri, in their upcoming workshop Alleviating Compassion Fatigue. September 27th, 2-5pm. $60 early registration, $75 regular. (CEU’s available for Yoga Professionals and Nurses.) Ashley also teaches Yoga Nidra, Tuesdays 5:45-6:45 and Mindfulness Meditation, Second Sundays, 9-10am. (September Mindful Meditation is September 8!)

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