Are you alright?? She said, her blue eyes deep with kindness and framed in concern.

“I’m ok” I said. I crumpled up the brown paper bag my banana muffin was served in, then tossed it in the bin, like the throw away comment I just made.

Silence. I took a breath and turned my face to the sunshine…. Thinking…… I guess now is as good a time as any to start telling the truth. To her and to myself.

“To be honest mum….no I am not alright, but I will be”

She said, “you know you can tell me anything right?”.  I know I can trust this woman with my life, but what I have to say will potentially traumatize her just hearing it.

“I now mum, but if I told you, I would end up having to counsel you through what you just heard…….. I don’t want to do that to us”

That’s just how it is for many of us in human services. Often the world we work in is not the world our family and friends live in. So, we straddle the fence of two worlds……. one foot in each and it can get exhausting.

It has been called burnout, compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and empathy fatigue. Thanks to neuroscience and research we have these labels available to us. They validate the common struggle for so many dedicated and passionate people.

The role of caring for others who are vulnerable, or suffering brings with it a unique set of challenges. Paid or unpaid the common struggle for those in service of others (including those dedicated to environmental conservation) circles around symptoms of emotional and physical fatigue. On one hand it ignites dedication and a sense of satisfaction and on the other, it can leave us feeling exhausted, empty and cynical.

However, the important questions remain……. what can I do about it? We start with the only thing we ever really have any control over. Ourselves.

If you are reading this then your superpower is probably understanding the emotional make up of others, then responding to their needs. It is also extremely likely that you have spent the bulk of your life NOT applying to same diligence to your own emotional experiences and needs. 

Often our compassion and dedication for others takes centre stage. But the truth is we cannot reach our full potential when dealing with the suffering and vulnerability of others if we do not first understand our own. However, we often skip this part, because it feels selfish or trivial. It isn’t.

We all wrestle with the same challenging feelings in varying degrees e.g., anger, hopelessness, depression, and grief.  If we deny and dismiss our own experiences, they will be exacerbated the same way anyone else’s would if treated that way. If we offer time, acceptance, compassion and patience something else happens. So I invite you now to consider the importance of being truthful with yourself about how you really feel.

We all know that the most important part of human service work is connection. We all know that quality human connection was ever formed through ticking of things on your “to do” list. Learning to stop doing and start being is pivital to longevity in a service roles. Mindfulness is the perfect road map back to connection. Starting with yourself.

Whenever I run workshops on Sustainability in Service, I always recommend basic mindfulness training as a foundational skill to healing the effects of empathy fatigue and vicarious trauma. So start with the breath, be open, be curious, then see what comes next.

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