“Self-Care is not selfish. You cannot serve from an empty vessel.”
Over the course of their training, psychologists have often been told to maintain objectivity in their work. They are supposed to suspend their personal beliefs and feelings and look at clients with clear glasses. However, psychologists cannot discard empathy and compassion for they are the tools that help them connect with clients. Without these two, a psychologist is rendered as a mere robotic device that hears their clients, but does not listen.
However, the act of being compassionate and empathetic comes with a hidden cost, especially for clinical psychologists as they traditionally see clients with more complex issues. Compassion fatigue and emotional burnouts are prevalent in increasing rates amongst helping professionals. Compassion fatigue is a psychologist’s reduced capacity to feel empathy, positive regard, or authenticity for their clients and is usually “the natural consequent behaviours and emotions resulting from knowing about a traumatizing event experienced or suffered by a person” (Figley, 1995, p. 7, as cited in Adams, Boscarino, & Figley, 2006). Psychologists use compassion to increase the effectiveness of their therapy. Unfortunately, feeling compassion for clients also puts psychologists at the risk of compassion fatigue. It becomes a serious issue as it decreases psychologists’ competence in helping their clients. The APA Ethical Principles of Psychologists states that “psychologists strive to be aware of the possible effect of their own physical and mental health on their ability to help those with whom they work.” This means that a psychologist shouldn’t practice when they find themselves experiencing compassion fatigue as it affects their ability to foster the well-being of their clients.
Experiencing compassion fatigue for a longer duration can lead to an emotional burnout. It is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment (Maslach, Schaufeli, & Leiter, 2001). When psychologists do not release their emotions regarding their work, the resulting emotional exhaustion provides the perfect breeding ground for emotional burnouts. All mental health practitioners experiencing burnout disengage from work, which consequently leads to decreased competence. Both compassionate fatigue and emotional burnouts can create feelings of depression, anxiety, and helplessness amongst therapists. Ironically then, the therapist herself/himself becomes the client.
All helping professionals like nurses, emergency room personnel, police, and mental health providers are equally at risk for becoming victims of both compassion fatigue and emotional burnouts. However, clinical psychologists who tend to survivors of trauma are at a unique risk of experiencing vicarious trauma. Vicarious trauma occurs when psychologists develop trauma reactions after being exposed to their client’s traumatic experience (Trippany, Kress, & Wilcoxon, 2004). Psychologists start exhibiting symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder such as experiencing intrusive thoughts and images of their client’s stories along with physiological arousal and somatic complaints. Researchers working in the field of trauma are also not safe from vicarious trauma (Bell, Kulkarni, & Dalton, 2013). All psychologists are vulnerable to compassion fatigue, emotional burnouts, and perhaps, vicarious trauma. The only thing that can buffer the effect of this debilitating kryptonite is self-care. This includes all behaviours and actions taken to increase mental and physical resilience and well-being. Self-care acts as a safeguard against psychological distress caused over the course of a psychologist’s career; it recharges the therapist and helps them cultivate optimism.
Thus, self-care helps a therapist navigate around these pitfalls of compassion fatigue and emotional burnout. The next blog in this series will include various kinds of self-care techniques as well as some common things that get in way of it.