By Stephanie Filio
Throughout the school year, I can count on having this conversation over and over again with anxious students who need to be coaxed back from an emotional or behavioral calamity: I ask them, “Remember Alice in Wonderland?”
“Yes,” they reply with a slight eye roll only those with a trained eye might detect.
I persist, “What happened when Alice got curious about the hole in the ground?”
“She falls in?” They’re softening.
“That’s right, she falls in. Then what?”
Their confidence building from correct answers, they reply, “She gets stuck.”
I’ve got them right where I want them. “Yes,” I say. “She gets stuck and lost. Stay away from the rabbit holes.”
This conversation is one of my favorites because I think it is a significant part of learning how to navigate life and how to self-regulate. It calls on us to evaluate what we can control and what we can’t while emphasizing that if we know our triggers, we might just be able to identify and avoid them. Not surprisingly, I also often have this conversation with teachers and educational staff (as well as with myself), particularly when they are facing a tough bout of compassion fatigue.
Many articles and resources discuss ways that we can avoid and mend compassion fatigue. Some suggestions for combatting compassion fatigue can be difficult to follow, considering time restraints that people have on their lives. Going for a hike or having a getaway may not be accessible options for our weekends. During the school year, reducing our screen time at work or taking a second perspective on deadlines might be difficult when we have multiple meetings on various days and scheduling conflicts to tend to daily.
Seeing the Signs
However, being able to recognize the signs of compassion fatigue might at least help us better understand our stressed heart and approach the world around us less contentiously. Spotting a rabbit hole in time to sidestep it could save us from falling in completely. Some common signs of compassion fatigue are:
- Social withdrawal. Have you ever gone to a cookout and sat silently, finding it difficult to keep up with the conversations of those around you? How about when you get home from a long day of student trauma and emotional parents and you trip over yourself running inside to avoid having to make small talk with the neighbors? If we chose this field, we likely are social beings by nature, but sometimes it feels like we say all the words and there are just none left.
- Interest withdrawal. Confession time. I love to crochet, weave, craft, and create, and when I do, I feel a surge of energy from being creative. Despite having materials readily available when I get home from a long day at work, what do I typically reach for? My cell phone. I will sit in silence for about an hour, playing some mindless game to close out the world around me. With my energy depleted, I lose sight of the more beneficial outcome from being creative and opt for immediate gratification.
- Biological changes. The biological disturbances related to compassion fatigue are also common in various types of anxiety or depression. They might include poor sleep, appetite gain or loss, irritability, loss of concentration, and so on. Think about how you feel on Friday, after a week of four parent-teacher conferences, two 504 meetings, three self-harming students, a list of schedule changes, two meetings before contract hours, and an hour spent on the phone begging student services to send you food bags for a couple of families in need. When you put the wrong shoes on, mistakenly put your lunch in the cabinet and pens in the fridge, roll your eyes when your kid reminds you about the performance that night, and can’t recall simple words, you know you have had enough.
A Few Ideas
On those days when you start to realize that your heart and mind are slipping and you don’t feel like yourself, it is time to take a pause. Even if it can’t be for long, just a minute or two to take a breath and simply recognize that you are taxed can make a huge difference in the type of day you will have! If I have time, I like to have an off-the-clock venting session with some of my most trusted peers and friends so that I can let out all my frustrations to someone who knows how much I truly love my job despite my momentary lapse in kindness. In our conversations, we share many methods for combatting fatigue and getting back to business. Here are a few:
- Meet with friends. Whether by phone or in person, just let it out!
- Watch bad reality TV. People or animals will do—it’s just a reminder that life goes on outside of those school walls.
- Clean. Not with pressure to be perfect, but that angry kind of cleaning to get out aggression and feel productive at the same time!
- Yardwork. Again, doing yardwork with fury allows you to feel productive, get physical, and stop and smell the roses.
- Magazine binge. Get your smarts on while looking at visually pleasing pictures that will inspire you (paper copies work best to give you some tactile play too).
- Job search. This is controversial if you love your job, but sometimes it is like piling your shopping cart high and then putting everything back at the last second just to get the impulse shopping out of your system!
- Buy something pretty for your home. Our homes should be our sanctuary for recuperation, so get those fresh flowers at the grocery store or order that pretty soap dish! It doesn’t have to be expensive. Sometimes the little things will bring a lasting smile.
- Watch your family. Sometimes you have to take a step back to see what you’ve got; observe your loved ones and think about why you love them.
Use Your Summer Wisely
Many of us are also lucky enough to have the summer off to help us battle compassion fatigue. When the summer break hits, educators decompress in phases—it’s not an immediate cleansing deep breath. May and June are nonstop and exhausting. Weekends are no longer enough to catch up, and you just keep pushing or you might not finish. The last day is jubilant, full of energy, and everyone is in celebration mode. The weekend following is similar. Plans are made, and everyone relaxes a bit. Then, the first Monday of the summer hits and you turn a corner right into a wall.
The realization that you survived another year typically comes the first full week of summer, and it is both lovely and arduous. You understand then, as you melt into your couch and stare in shock, that summer is not about being on vacation but about replenishing your spirit. We experience so much throughout the year, much of which is emotional and weighty. There is always another student, task, class, professional development session, data collection, or content meeting to tend to, leaving very little time to process the many details of the year. For many of us, summer is forced rest.
Wandering and Moving On
It took me several years in the school counseling profession to realize that every time I would shut down or make myself less available to the world around me, I was soothing myself out of fatigue: compassion fatigue, social fatigue, occupational fatigue, and just plain fatigue fatigue! When I am quiet, I am thinking. I am running through my caseload student by student, reliving moments with them, mourning for their obstacles, remaining in awe at their hard work. I go over my own growth, the transformation a year brings, and the relationships I share with colleagues who are also in the trenches.
At some point in summer healing something eases, and I begin to get excited about an idea or possible project for the next year. Something about giving myself permission to acknowledge and humor my fatigue makes me feel more in control of it. If we go into our schools and throw our hearts into our profession, I don’t know that compassion fatigue is ever avoidable. But I am a firm believer that there is a place and purpose for every emotion, so long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole and get stuck there.
Perhaps the best way we can combat compassion fatigue is to recall my favorite theorist, Viktor Frankl. Holding onto what we have endured will not serve us as much as taking what we need and moving on will. Frankl says, “When we are no longer able to change a situation . . . we are challenged to change ourselves.” This is not an overwhelming challenge, and should not add pressure to our lives that are already filled with many small sacrifices no one will ever know about. Rather, it is simply challenging us to see how everything we go through and everything our students go through can serve a purpose. To justify all the emotions we experience, we can leave them where they are and approach the future with less dread and more appreciation for what may lie ahead.
Stephanie Filio is a middle school counselor in Virginia Beach. She received her undergraduate degree in interdisciplinary studies from the University of Virginia and her M.Ed. in counseling from Old Dominion University. In a discussion with one of her UVA professors about her desire to stay in school forever, her mentor wisely responded, “If you want to be a lifelong learner, go into education,” and so she found her place. Prior to her six years as a school counselor, Stephanie worked in private education, specializing in standardized tests, test preparation, and future planning. She writes about her career and hobbies at her blog, Weekend Therapy, and can be found on Twitter @steffschoolcoun. Stephanie also enjoys spending time with her books, crafts, and family.
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