Recently, I worked with a practice where a client’s dog had presented in very poor condition after being hit by a car. The client was difficult from the outset, refusing to fill out paperwork because he “knew” he was already in the computer, stating the practice had “killed his other dogs.” When it was determined that he was unable to financially provide care, he opted for euthanasia and spat “I hope the building burns down and you’re all in it!” on his way out the door.
What fascinated me was hearing all the different reactions his words provoked from the staff. Some team members were really ticked off, some found it funny, and others felt empathy for the man. How could this be? How could the same comment elicit such a range of feelings?
The answer lies in the fact that circumstances do not create our feelings. This client’s comment did not cause the myriad feelings I was told about. Our thoughts are what cause our feelings—more specifically, our thoughts about things that happen. That is how one incident can lead to such a variety of feelings and reactions: everyone had different thoughts about it.
Some of the staff thought, What an ungrateful jerk. Here we bent over backwards for his dog, and he didn’t deserve the dog anyway. Loser. The dog is better off now, and he just doesn’t want to pay his bill because it died.
Others thought, Wow, what a sorry excuse for a human being. He probably has a miserable life and just wants to make ours miserable too.
Or, Really, dude? You’re angry at us? Give me a break; we did our job.
And still other staff thought, Oh boy, who knows what his life is like. Maybe the guy is down on his luck and this dog was all he had. Anyone who could say such an awful thing must be in a pretty low place in his life.
Because they all had different thoughts about his comment, they all had different feelings about it—and him. Some were still seething about it, although it had happened a long time ago. Others were over it the second after he left the building.
Which would you rather be?
Find the Golden Ticket
I can remember the exact day I learned that my thoughts create my feelings. It was like finding a Golden Ticket in a Wonka bar. Finally, I felt empowered.
When you believe that the circumstances in your life cause your feelings, you are left feeling powerless. Some people react by trying to manipulate everyone and everything around them in an attempt to feel better. Good luck with that. We can’t control others. Clients are going to behave badly, coworkers will aggravate us some days, we may have supervisors who have no business leading, and other people in our lives will continue to do things that aggravate and inconvenience us. But we get to decide what to think about all of those situations. And in turn, we get to decide how we are going to feel.
If you don’t like the way you feel, look at how you think. Pay attention to the thoughts that come up repeatedly, and you will see why you feel the way you do. Everything in your life is determined by your thoughts. Your thoughts determine your feelings. Your feelings drive your actions (or inaction, like shutting down or withdrawing). And your actions create results in your life. Compassion fatigue is such a result.
As a compassion fatigue specialist, I’ve witnessed the suffering of many veterinary technicians. Not many people talk about the toll that veterinary medicine takes on technicians. I do. I do because you tell me, and also because I’ve experienced it myself.
What I have come to believe is that, to a large extent, compassion fatigue is a thought problem, whether with our thoughts and expectations of ourselves or of our clients, colleagues, bosses, researchers, the general public, etc. We can’t change how people behave. We can’t change the fact that cancer exists. We can’t change the fact that some pet owners have no idea how to care for animals.
I see many people who push against and resist all these facts. When you resist reality, the only one you harm is yourself. What you are in control of is…everything else. That’s right. We have much more power than we think and the ability to influence our lives in more ways than most of us ever realize.
Become the Watcher
Your power lies in your awareness of what you are thinking about all of these things: the clients, the work, the patients, the organization, the co-workers, the leadership, the researchers, the public. Becoming aware of your thoughts is the first step.
How you do that? Get quiet with yourself. Journaling is a great tool to empty your mind. Set a 10-minute timer and just start writing. If journaling isn’t your thing, find what is: take a walk, go for a run, create something artistic, meditate, do yoga, or do anything that allows you to disconnect from your thinking mind and connect to the you that “watches” your mind.
Spiritual author and teacher Eckhart Tolle says it this way:
Be present as the watcher of your mind—of your thoughts and emotions as well as your reactions in various situations. Be at least as interested in your reactions as in the situation or person that causes you to react. […] Don’t make a personal problem out of them. You will then feel something more powerful than any of those things that you observe: the still, observing presence itself behind the content of your mind, the silent watcher.1
Your thoughts are a choice. Once you are aware of what you are thinking, you have the ability to change it to something else. This is how you can change your life. This is how you can feel empowered rather than defeated. Ask yourself: Do you want to continue thinking the way you’ve been thinking? Maybe so, if your thoughts are uplifting, motivating, and supportive and are serving you well. By contrast, if you are struggling with your work or an area of your life, check in with your thoughts and how they make you feel. Your feelings will tell you everything you need to know about how you are thinking.
I’ll say it again: your thoughts are a choice. For example, an HBC stray cat ends up being euthanized because no one claimed ownership and offered to pay for surgery to fix his broken legs. Do you think, This totally stinks. Why couldn’t the shelter take him and pay for this? Why couldn’t we do it pro bono and find a home for him? Or do you think, I wish we could’ve helped him, but at least he died being held and loved by me. I did what I could. I imagine the first thought will result in you feeling angry or frustrated or cynical or grief-stricken. The second, I imagine, would result in feelings of sadness but also contentment, peace, or reverence. Can you see how our thoughts create our feelings, and therefore shape our experience?
Which do you think is more likely, over time, to fuel compassion fatigue?
Do you want to continue to think thoughts that don’t make you feel good?
Appreciate the Gift
When you truly realize that you can influence your thoughts and, therefore, how you feel, you will be able to use this skill in all areas of your life. It really is an immense gift. We are not taught how to make ourselves feel better, which is why we live in a culture of addiction and hyperactivity. People try to numb their uncomfortable feelings with too much alcohol, food, technology, and other distractions, when what we really need is just to realize we have the power to make ourselves feel better—and we always have.
Be gentle and compassionate with yourself, not judgmental. As you begin to recognize your thoughts, you will also begin to realize that many are simply not true. Don’t criticize your thoughts, just notice them, and be curious about them. Ask yourself, Is this true? We are never motivated to change anything when we come from a place of self-criticism, so stay open, loving, and compassionate towards yourself.
And remember: I want you to know you are more powerful than you think, more amazing than you know, and capable of feeling much better than you do now.