Updated: Mar 22
Oooooh the double entendre of this phrase.
The morbidity of it. Equal parts silly and tragically true. Gallows humor. Are you caring yourself to death? Avoiding self care like the plague? Someone tells you to take some deep breaths and the first thing that comes to mind is flipping them the bird?
YOU couldn’t possibly have time for self care.
But self care is not the enemy. You know that. Deep down under that hardened wall of boundaries and self preservation, you know that you can’t carry on like this forever. You know that your smug co-worker is right. You do need to take a few minutes to compose yourself. But really, who does she think she is? She’s the one with high blood pressure. She never listens to her own advice. But also, why take a few minutes? That’s just a tease. It’s like that whole Wavy Lays slogan: “you can’t eat just one.” If you open that can of worms, you’ll be a basket case by the end of your touchy-feely self-care break. Then what use will you be? You can’t work like that.
Compassion fatigue is the plague for healthcare professionals.
They even both have a word with the letters “gue.” There’s no way that’s a coincidence. You are caring yourself to death. Wait, that’s not the right way to say it. Let’s try again. You are caring for other people to your death. Still not quite right. That sounds too noble. Maybe if we break it down.
You are caring for other people. Great! What a great thing to do. In fact, everyone should do that. But wait, there’s more.
You are caring for other people in order to put a roof over your head and food on your table. That’s also great. There were many other paths you could have taken to cover your basic needs. But that also means that you compromise your basic survival needs if you take a break from caring for other people. Now this is getting more nuanced.
You are also caring for other people outside of work. You may be one of the few healthcare professionals that is in it solely for the money and glory. If that’s the case, you’re probably a brain surgeon. (Haha, sorry brain surgeons. I’m sure you have feelings too.) But really, you probably take on a caregiving role outside your work. Your family probably relies on you to care for your aging parents because you’re better at it than they are. You have children who need you. Your friends come to you with their problems because you are the best listener. This is adding up to a lot of caring. Time to make the next big leap in this analysis.
You are risking your life to care for other people. Wait. Isn’t caring supposed to be fulfilling? We all need each other. There have always been healers, listeners, and people who can deal with really gross stuff. Well first of all, that really gross stuff could be the thing that takes you out. Chances are, however, your most risky activity has nothing to do with germs. Your most risky activity is not taking self care seriously. Each day in the United States, a doctor takes his or her own life. And in the last 20 years, there has been only ONE study on nurse suicide. That probably gives you a good idea about the situation of CNAs and others lower on the totem pole. How did no one think to investigate nurse suicide? Probably because nurses think it’s selfish to spend time on themselves. We all know doctors have bigger egos. Except the ones who didn’t make it. It turns out doctors are human too (okay, quit picking on doctors).
If you’re not careful, you may care yourself all the way to death. Let’s be real. The threat of suicide is only the most overt way in which compassion fatigue leads to death. Other causes are less easy to correlate. Here are the symptoms that started to pop up for me: chronic anxiety and depression, crying every day for much longer than I want to admit, isolation from friends and family, exhaustion, migraines, and finally, a panic attack that landed me in the E.R. What does your list look like? I’ve seen co-workers lose their hair, lose weight, gain weight, battle chronic staff infections, and develop cancer, just to name a few. Will we ever know the precise ways in which these ailments resulted from compassion fatigue? No. Do we all have that gut feeling that our co-workers would have been healthier if they had picked a different career? Yes.
Don’t worry, I’m going to make all of this an easier pill to swallow. I’m not going to be touchy feely about compassion fatigue (See “No More Touchy-Feely Compassion Fatigue Remedies” if you don’t believe me). Basically, I’m here to tell you to get over yourself. If you want to kill yourself slowly, that’s your prerogative. BUT I think you want to keep helping people. And you want to do it well. You want to do it better than that smug co-worker that thinks she knows when you need a time out. You want to be as annoying as that new healthcare professional that hasn’t been beaten down yet. You want to inspire your patients to fight for their own lives. And we need you to do that. I need you to do that. I might end up in your office, in your ER, in your operating room. And I don’t want a stressed out grouchy asshole administering “healing” to me. I want a bright shiny annoyingly committed humanitarian.
We took down the plague once. Let's do it again.
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