Tuesday, 18 February 2014

The One Where I Drop the F-Bomb

Quietly Inside, 2013, Sarah Jean
February is the Wednesday of Winter. We're stuck in seemingly unending snowbanks, struggling to remember what the colour green looks like and waiting for the next weather alert to be issued.

The snow is certainly getting to me but the worst part of the past week has been my overall sense of not giving a fuck about anything.

I know. I just threw down an F-bomb (and it wasn't F for feminist).

KC  listened quietly as I cried over our coffees at Crema on Sunday. Oh yes, I cried publicly. Mostly about an endless feeling of falling behind, my stalled energy for community engagement and a sense of teeth-grating frustration over-riding my once abundant empathy and compassion. I felt tired, fatigued and hopeless.

The folks at the table next to us retreated across the room.

KC is an incredible listener and deeply insightful friend. She had many thoughtful questions, but two words in particular stood out: Compassion Fatigue.

According to Compassion Fatigue Solutions, Compassion Fatigue "refers to the profound emotional and physical erosion that takes place when helpers are unable to refuel and regenerate". The empathy and compassion required of people in supporting roles can become the emotional "cost of caring" when time and space are not sufficiently available to regain a sense of inner balance and energy.

From The Declassified Adoptee

That sounded familiar.

As an educator, particularly a social justice educator, people often honour me with their stories, trusting me as a safe space for disclosure. As an activist, even an activist focused on creating positive social change, I read, watch and analyze material on social injustices, trauma and oppression daily. In time, I start to loose my ability to see the balance of positive and negative in the world around me.

My skewed perspective seems to translate into a pattern of self-sacrifice. I start to work late, goading myself to get just one more thing done. I get up early, immediately thinking "Go! Go! Go!". I reject making time for fun, feeling guilty if I take a break from "caring". I put off doing the things that rejuvenate me. I keep saying Yes. I keep listening and supporting even when I feel overwhelmed. I keep going, unable to admit I need a break because I want to be a "good" person.

This is very embarrassing to write. I hear my honest emotional and physical erosion behind those words, but I also hear threads of self-importance. I can see my desire to offer support slipping into a form martyrdom, where I sacrifice myself on the alter of social change and community engagement, telling myself that I must do this work or it won't get done. It's like an internal version of Smokey the Bear pointing his paw at me, saying "Only YOU can stop homophobia, oppression, racism, sexism, gender violence, etc., etc., etc.".

The worst part is that I know Compassion Fatigue exists and I know listening to another person's pain can take a toll. I know that I will get tired and that I will need a break. I know this yet I don't put in place ways of supporting myself and I ignore self-care. It's here that martyrdom rears its slobbery head.

Martyrdom is an incredibly seductive mind trap. I feel so important when I'm running around "helping" and "caring". That quiet little assumption that everything rests upon ME makes it so easy to spin tales about how I MUST keep giving because SO MANY people depend upon me. It lets me believe that if I took a break the world would surely fall into a (worse) pit of despair. Despite the pressure these assumptions place on me, that feeling of self-importance is addictive.

Since coffee with KC I've taken some time to rest, paint and knit. The dishes have piled up a bit, there are dust bunnies in the corners and some phone calls have gone unanswered. A few days of breathing room have given me enough perspective to see that for me Compassion Fatigue quickly leads to martyrdom and martyrs aren't particularly useful. Deep, dark circles under my eyes and a cranky, tired Sarah Jean does not bring positive change to our world.

In fact, the many ages of successful humyn existence that have unfolded without my direct involvement suggests my assumption of self-importance may not be, ahem, accurate. This little reality check indicates that I could indeed safely take a break from changing the world without cataclysmic disaster. In fact, it appears that we all could take some time out to rest and rejuvenate.

I'm hoping this post can help me, and maybe us, keep this perspective in mind as I trudge through the remainder of the winter.

From Radical Self Care



  1. I have fallen into Fatigue Compassion many times! Always leave some time for you :)

  2. and Dance....xoxox my sweet