The Antidote to Compassion Fatigue
The other day, a veterinary technician said to me, “I have the best job in the world. Are you kidding me? I get to help animals get well. What could be better than that?”
Not much that I can think of.
But it’s not all butterflies and rainbows, is it?
The clients can take a toll on us. There are no-win situations that push our ethical limits. We sometimes have feelings of not doing enough and not being enough. We can find ourselves worn out from giving and can run low on compassion. Sometimes we might question our sustainability in the field and our future. And often, there’s that omnipresent feeling of wishing that things were different than they actually are.
Compassion fatigue is the combination of emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual exhaustion and depletion that can result when we are repeatedly exposed to another’s pain and suffering.
It’s the negative aspect of veterinary medicine, and, like it or not, it is a normal consequence of working in a helping profession.
You are not alone in how you feel. I can assure you of that. But there is an antidote.
Compassion Satisfaction Is Protective
Compassion satisfaction is the positive aspect of veterinary medicine.
It’s the puppies (and their breath!), the thankful clients, the patients that get better. It’s feeling pride in our work, educating clients, caring for our patients, learning new skills, working as a team, and making a difference in someone’s life, to name just a few contributing factors.
The pleasure we derive from our work can help shield us from the negative effects (i.e., compassion fatigue) if we are aware of it and recognize it as such. Many times, we get caught up in the hustle and bustle of a busy practice and equally busy personal life and lose touch with the reasons why we do what we do. Many in helping professions such as veterinary medicine have wanted to do such work from a very early age and can’t imagine doing anything else.
To sustain our passion and love of our work, we must experience compassion satisfaction on a regular basis. Compassion satisfaction helps balance out compassion fatigue. Together, they are the yin and the yang, the good and the bad, the pleasure and the pain, the dark and the light.
“We realize the importance of light when we see darkness.”
—Malala Yousafzai, I am Malala
Celebrate the Wins
When I facilitate workshops, I always pose the question, “Do we celebrate the wins as much as we fixate on the losses?” It’s a great question to ponder personally as well as within the practice where you work. Human beings instinctively seek the negative. It’s what kept our caveman ancestors alive: they had to focus on the negative or risk being killed by predators. This was essential thousands of years ago, but is no longer helpful. Still, our brains are hardwired for it. Negative experiences are sticky and get caught in the mind.
Acknowledging the positive—like the patients that have a good outcome and the satisfied clients—requires some practice and steadfastness.
In the practice of mindfulness, this is the concept of savoring: allowing joy, celebration, and gratitude to linger as we do with a good meal, a decadent dessert, or a day at the beach. The same applies to our work. Allow yourself to savor the hepatic lipidosis cat that finally starts eating on its own or, better yet, goes home. Or the client who brings the team cookies even though they lost their dog to renal failure.
We are so quick to move away from the heart-warming and back to the heart-wrenching. By doing so, we cheat ourselves out of the rewards of our work. Being satisfied is a practice and takes some reminding, but it is worth the effort.
Reflection and Writing Exercise
In Trauma Stewardship, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky recommends that, before starting your workday, you take a moment to literally stop in your tracks and ask yourself, “Why am I doing what I am doing?” After you hear your answer, remind yourself, gently, that you are making a choice to do this work. Take a deep breath. Breathe in both the responsibility and the freedom in this acknowledgment.
Find a quiet place and a journal and work your way through these contemplative questions to rediscover your why and intentions for being in this profession.
- Why am I doing this work?
- What drew me to veterinary medicine?
- What did and do I want to achieve by being a veterinary technician?
- Am I in touch with the positive aspects of my work?
- What keeps me going and sustains me both personally and professionally, given the challenges of veterinary medicine?
- Do I celebrate the “wins” for more than 30 seconds?
- Can I think of a situation where I know I’ve made a difference?
- Are there any specific patients or clients that have profoundly touched me in a positive way?
- If I had it to do all over again, would I make any different choices?
- Do I still love this work?
Where Do You Go From Here?
Your future comes down to where you put your focus and what you tell yourself. Your mind is a powerful thing, the most powerful thing you have, and left on its own, it will seek and hold onto negative experiences, situations, and feelings. But with constant redirection, you can reconnect to your passion for being a veterinary technician and helping those that can’t speak for themselves.
When I find myself stuck and not able to see the good in my situation, I ask myself this simple question: How can I see this differently? I’m constantly amazed at how this question opens my heart and reminds me to choose love over fear.
Viktor Frankl, neurologist, psychiatrist, and Holocaust survivor, said in his wildly popular book Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
It’s all about where we choose to dwell, where we choose to focus our attention. Focus your attention on that which brings you joy.