Understanding Compassion Fatigue
We are connected through trauma, whether we like it or not.
Imagine you're checking out at the store and dropping your bag of potatoes on the floor. You ask the clerk for help as they roll down the aisle. The clerk scowls and is impatient. You don't know that the clerk's mother is in the hospital battling cancer. She continues to stare and proceed not to help you gather your potatoes. The look in her eyes seems so tired.
You try to shrug it off and say, "Have a good day," but you feel her tired look, body language, and energy. You might even begin to scowl; however, you feel bad for her. What is that feeling?
Mirror Neurons & Empathy
The feeling you activated is empathy. More specifically, your mirror neurons have activated empathy. Mirror neurons connect us to others' emotional states; happy, sad, mad, confused, etc.
Your mirror neurons began honing their skill just after birth; your primary caregiver influenced the development and laid the foundation for empathy. Mirror neurons not only allow us to "mirror" the actions of those around us. They help us make sense of others' behaviors and intentions and understand their facial expressions.
Mirror neurons help us move into empathy and compassion. It is one reason we connect vicariously through trauma, often known as compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma.
What is Compassion Fatigue?
Let me give you an example …
For Sarah, it has been almost one year since she returned to work after the pandemic, and the office still feels odd. Sam, Chelli, and Ruiz never returned; sadly, they lost their battle with covid. Jeff, her boss, who is close to retirement, did return but lost his wife to covid. Sarah and her family managed to make it through the pandemic without losing any family members, something she is very grateful for.
Daily, Sarah watches Jeff as he sits in his office chair and wipes tears from his eyes. Sometimes Jeff feels robotic, just going through the motions, yet Sarah can feel the sad heartache beneath the surface. She does her best to be there for Jeff, but sometimes her compassion overwhelms her.
Sarah is experiencing compassion fatigue due to her mirror neurons working effectively. Empathy is an excellent problem to have. We want people to be compassionate. The world is a better place because of Sarah. However, Sarah must actively care for her emotional and mental well-being as she witnesses Jeff's trauma.
Empathy is a healthy connection; however, if we are not taking care of ourselves, it can be the kind of connection that has adverse effects. Whether you are a coach, counselor, parent, grandparent, teacher, faith leader, or Sarah in the workplace, you will encounter people suffering from trauma, impacting you and your Enneagram type.
What does it mean to be trauma-aware?
Being trauma-aware means understanding the ins and outs of trauma recovery and learning basic tools to assist you, your loved ones, or clients as they navigate traumatic events. While empathy is a beautiful connection, it can take a toll on your well-being if not balanced with self-care and healthy boundaries. That's why trauma-awareness is crucial for everyone to learn.
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