Compassion (Fatigue) in the Land of So Much Suffering Pt. 2
In this three-part series, I discuss my recent experiences with compassion fatigue, how it relates to wellness professions and our models of healing, and lastly, how we might better work to integrate our understanding of suffering into how we revitalize ourselves from the exhaustion it causes.
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In my first post in this series, I related compassion fatigue primarily to our collective experience of injustice in the world. It’s a type of burnout we sometimes cyclically experience even if our connection to activism and trauma is only by being adjacent to it or exposed to it through the media. In this post, I want to take a closer look at how compassion fatigue relates to healing work.
Many of us grow out of social justice movements to enter into more explicitly healing related professions. Some of us become coaches or doulas, others massage therapists and counselors. For me, part of the appeal of this type of work is that I’m getting the opportunity to create tangible changes in the communities I care about. Many of my clients for instance are LGBT+ people. Being able to provide an environment where they can safely and respectfully receive bodywork and coaching to overcome obstacles in their lives, from my perspective, is a greater and more positive impact than more conventional activist strategies like pursuing non-discrimination laws or calling attention to bigoted businesses, health practices, and employers. After all, even with such laws in place, the work of creating welcoming and affirming alternatives remains. These areas do not have to be foils or in competition to one another. In fact, I think many of us in healing professions would argue that our work is complementary to more conventional activist strategies.
Nevertheless, I think the capitalist world in particular where our healing work is taking place produces often unseen influences on not just our work but our role in creating it. Specifically, capitalism transmutes species-old practices of healing and medicine into profit-driven models. The position of healers in our society today is not community-elected (or supported), nor necessarily determined by actual success or wisdom. Instead, it’s driven by market participation and market dominance. To do this kind of work in today’s world, I need licenses, I need references, I need rent money for a space to work from, and I need clients. I compete with other practices who are often much larger corporate entities. To navigate this world, (and regardless of how ‘pure’ or ‘beyond money’ our intentions are), it’s necessary that we build a brand around ourselves and our practices to market to potential clients. Like activists trying to make a difference in the public eye, a major part of a healer’s brand is the curation of their own self for the consumer.
This self-branding, I believe, connects the business of being a healer back to compassion fatigue among healers. And here’s why…
Healers Are Not Actually ‘Healed’
This is a critical component to how the healing arts thrive in the capitalist era. While we may pay lip service to the idea of wounded healers, or tap into those archetypes in creating our own story, at the end of the day, our brand’s success is usually based on the idea that we are no longer wounded, that we are healed. This is because capitalism sells us cures or fixes, not a cultural practice or the integration of healers within our society.
Think about it. We go to doctors or other practitioners because we believe they will have the fix for our symptoms. We buy into self-help books or practices, and new healing art modalities because of the fixes others can attest to. We look at reviews. We look at the healer themselves. We read their bios for stories of transformation that mirror what we’re looking for in ourselves.
Capitalism, I believe, is integral to this dynamic because it desires long-term profit gains through treating symptoms rather than root or cultural causes of illness and despair, and it defines the economic landscape even our post-capitalist practices take place in. We have to make money to survive (unless we are already affluent). To make money, we have to sell goods and services. And to sell these things, we have to compete in a landscape defined by heavy-weight modern medical models, cures, and treatment of symptoms. This makes our modern role as healers different from the cultural roles we may draw inspiration from.
While I am sure that healers for thousands of years have included people who were in fact ‘healed’ of certain conditions, our experience of civilization is not only qualitatively different, but our relationship to being ‘healed’ is, I would argue, of much greater necessity to survive in the modern world. Few people today are choosing discernibly mad witches or oracles comparable to those of the ancient world over either mainstream medicine or its mainstream alternatives.
On at least some unconscious level, even when we recognize healers as ‘wounded healers,’ we also position them outside the cycles of trauma, suffering, and healing we come to them for help with. We think of them as ‘healed’ and give authority to their practice based on their presentation of being ‘healed.’ For massage therapists and similar professionals, spa culture can compound this mentality by marketing our skill set as an experience of ‘escape’ from the stresses of modern living. For that framing to work, we—the therapists—have to be thought of at least to some degree as people who have ‘escaped.’ This archetypal expectation of us as healed or escaped translates to the clothes we wear, the social media presences we maintain, the retreats we attend, and the platitudes we offer in sessions standardized in time and restrained in substance.
As clients, a little part of us can escape our pain when we think of our therapist as someone who has only just come down off some mountain’s vipassana retreat, mala beads still wrapped around sun-kissed, never-sore arm. Even visibly sweating as a therapist can shatter this illusion. But beyond escape, might we—therapists and clients alike—reach something more like healing if we could both be people, striving in a world we have not escaped, where suffering, pain, bills, and trauma still deeply affect us?
When we wellness professionals internalize this archetype of the escaped healer, we come into conflict with the reality of the world, and we set ourselves up for compassion fatigue because we may begin to believe our capacity to do without more than superficial care for ourselves is what qualifies us to help others.
Have you ever encountered a spiritual or holistic teacher who seemed to have it all together on the outside, but then slipped, if only for a moment, into the personality of an acerbic critic chastising their support staff or a participant in their event? Have you ever seen a Buddhist nun shout at someone? Or listened to a friend’s disappointment when they witnessed Amma frown? As human as these behaviors are, all of us in this profession know they are career-killers because they shatter the illusion that we have escaped, that we are healed. These moments threaten the market integrity of what we offer—the success of a product, a service, a philosophy. These moments make us human, not healer archetypes, and in this world, that’s a liability.
INTEGRATION-BYPASSING IN SELF-CARE
In the above graphic, I’ve illustrated two different models of healing that have become popular memes lately. The upper model, which depicts a straight arrow traveling from a point of trauma to a point of healing, is countered by the lower model, which depicts another style of movement between these points, this time with ups and downs. Despite their differences—and the accompanying text which describes the lower model—both depictions still rely on a passive linear framing of what healing means in relation to trauma. Both isolate trauma into a singular point and ultimately direct the movement of healing work in the singular direction of eventually being healed.
But healing is not a destination, regardless of how we conceptualize the path towards it. Instead, I would offer that healing is a reflex we can learn to better activate in response to the characteristic periods of suffering, instances of trauma and re-trauma that intrinsically accompany our existence. Healing is a verb, a culture, an ongoing process and practice. And by extension, healers are not people who have completed this work, rather we are people still actively engaged in this work and supporting others in it. Our healing is present tense, not a destination we have passed.
For those of us in wellness professions, I believe this distinction matters for two key reasons. First, we need to be honest about the self-care routines we contribute to our clients establishing. Healing is not just a matter of inputting enough massages or coaching sessions or whatever before one becomes ‘healed.’ Sometimes our wounds do not ‘heal’ to the point of restoring us back to our pre-trauma selves. Instead, it’s a matter of learning to live with them, or learning to better navigate the re-traumatizing triggers of the world that can activate them. Second, we need to be cautious about how we perceive ourselves in relationship to healing.
We have the potential to fall into trap much like spiritual-bypassing, wherein one adopts an averse or avoidant relationship to negativity, conflict, complexity, and difficulty in favor of at least an aura of positivity and transcendence. (In the case of spa workers, this may very well be a form of emotional labor expected of us). But the wider issue I am talking about here is what I would call integration-bypassing. The integration we are side-stepping is acceptance that struggle, suffering, conflict, heartache, and more are all characteristics of existence. And by that same understanding, healing is no longer a destination, but a trajectory—and an impermanent one at that. There is no point in our lives where we will be healed (past tense) or completely free of suffering. Both healing (active) and suffering are both experiences of life that arise and fall in cycles of their own.
While treating symptoms may be part of our healing work, the core of this field, I believe, is one where the conditions of suffering and healing are both accepted as part of existence. And while in some cases there are societal or environmental changes that can be collectively made to decrease the degree or expression of our suffering (for instance, eliminating cancer- and asthma-causing air pollution), suffering in some form or another (such as aging, heartache, or death) are critical aggregates of this existence which make life so valuable, and the nature of this existence is something to be accepted not fought or denied. In this way, I think healing work—at least as I strive to engage with it—is more like hospice and palliative care than it is the sublimated bliss or other cures associated with some New Age gurus or doctor’s prescriptions.
This matters to those of us who are healers because it is critical that we understand that when we experience burnout, it is not a failure on our part or disqualifying towards the work we do. When we struggle in relationships, or with paying the rent, controlling our emotions, or not reacting when our traumas are triggered—we are still healers, we are still healing, we are having very human, very real, very meaningful experiences in those moments. The fatigue we may feel at maintaining a façade of being healed is an indication that we are in denial of this world our work takes place in. The fatigue we experience after helping so many other people is an indication that we are losing our balance. We are over-working and over-extending to give when we need to make time to receive.
A genuine, long-term, self-care routine is critical for us to restore balance, and by that I specifically mean that we must think in terms of this being an ongoing process, an ongoing cycle of healing we have entered into. Especially when you are operating in a business mindset, it is easy to see re-booking sessions purely in terms of money and sales. Re-booking (if it works for you) and planning ahead are critical actions to prepare for the very nature of this life. The difference between people who bounce back from moments of suffering quickly and those who get lost in their experience for a while is not directly a matter of professional skill, but a matter of understanding and preparing for the nature of life itself. We get better at bouncing back from the extremes by accepting their impermanence and rhythm, and our own existence within—rather than apart from—this cycle. And for those of us in the healing professions, it is not just a matter of accepting that we must care for ourselves, it is also very much an assertion contrary to the myths and archetypes that accompany our profession at this time.
As the world around us wrestles with compassion fatigue and other stresses that accompany transforming this world into one more beautiful and just, we healers are uniquely in a position to provide mythic and magical guidance to people needing to understand why suffering happens. To do that, to truly be helpful, I believe we must not only understand suffering’s role in this existence, but our own as well. Our work must not only seek to uproot the causes of unnecessary suffering in this world, but the positioning of ourselves as outside of it.
The next time your massage therapist injures themselves from doing too much work, the next time your guru curses or frowns, bow to the Divine in them in that moment. The next time you experience any of those things and feel less than as a healing artist in this time, seek the Divine within yourself in that moment too. The nature of these moments, the nature of suffering and existence themselves, is beyond the capacity of our contemporary economic and social models to account for them. And real healing can begin when we accept that.
In the last post in this series, I’ll look at a few strategies we might employ to better prepare for and recover from compassion fatigue symptoms.
Check back in a week or so for links to the next article!
Learn More: Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project
Read More: Trauma Stewardship by Laura van Dernoot Lipsky
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Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is a licensed massage therapist and life coach in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. His work is especially focused on creating permaculture in his community, which sometimes looks like providing bodywork, and other times looks like writing or designing gardens for people and bees.
Get connected with him via email to email@example.com