Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow as Soul Injuries

All it takes is a beautiful fake smile 
to hide an injured soul;
they will never notice
how broken you really are.

Robin Williams

Hello, Everyone,

Lately, I've been noticing that some of the people in the CF and CS workshops nod in immediate recognition when I describe full-blown compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow as soul injuries. They know, intuitively, that the suffering they experience is deeper and more pervasive than the emotional pain described and addressed in some self-care workshops. It is a relief for these folks to have someone acknowledge the severity of their pain. This acknowledgement is often a first step toward releasing shame and opening the pathway to healing.

Soul injuries are wounds of our souls or essence, the loss of our sense of inner goodness, beauty and vitality stemming from trauma, unattended loss, burnout and the guilt and shame of our own actions or omissions.

Soul injury symptoms are described by Opus Peace as the familiar signs of postraumatic stress plus a defense-penetrating breach in the integrity our deepest selves. They often include:
1.  A haunting sense of being defective or tainted,
2.  A sense of betrayal by one's self, others, an organization, religion or God/Higher Power, and/or
3.  A sense of emptiness arising from disconnection from the part of ourselves carrying the pain.
Some of us have carried these injuries from childhood and others have experienced them through longterm exposure to the trauma and suffering of those we serve.

While our souls or essence will never be killed by our work, we can become separated from our original strength, truth, wisdom and compassion. We separate ourselves from our souls each time we cover up, numb out or run away from our truth and that separation eventually generates it's own symptoms. On the other hand, when we own our truth (including its pain) in gentle respectful ways, our souls can expand to hold and heal our wounds.

The healing of a soul injury entails addressing soul issues. Not only must we grieve unattended losses and re-regulate traumatized nervous systems, we must also forgive and make a home for the parts of ourselves we have denied and split off due to guilt and shame.  Then, we need to develop and nurture a life of the spirit - deeply personal and meaningful beliefs, teachings, ceremonies and rituals that will provide a strong foundation for building resilience.

As Opus Peace says, we all need a class on: to open our hearts to our losing and failing, paradoxically becoming whole in the process. Re-owning and then re-homing pieces of self (often hidden behind facades or exiled into unconsciousness)  can precipitate healing. Telling stories of our lostness (without the distorting illusion of how we wish our lives to be) is the first step toward freedom. Hearing other peoples stories en-courages us to liberate our own.

So as we become deeply honest with ourselves, at least one other person and Whom or Whatever Benevolence we believe in, trauma can be healed, losses grieved, guilt atoned, forgiveness accepted, shame dispelled and a future, strengthened and brightened by hope and small "s" spirituality, explored.

Once I have moved into my new home at the end of the month, I hope to begin designing a second tier compassion fatigue/chronic sorrow workshop tentatively called, Compassion Fatigue/Chronic Sorrow: Going Deeper, which will address Compassion Fatigue and Chronic Sorrow as soul injuries. You will be the first to know when it's ready!

In the meantime, the next Caring On Empty Workshop for Helping Professionals will be held at The Granville Island Hotel on Monday May 7th from 9-4.  Brochures with registration forms are available at   Please tell your friends and colleagues!

Photo from the Opus Peace website.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Hope for 2018 ...

Hope is the belief that tomorrow
could be better.


Happy New Year, Everyone!

Here we stand on the threshold of a new year, in the in-between space of expectation and possibility between old and new.

My focus today (and perhaps my new word for 2018) is hope. Thoughts about hope have arisen organically through the rhythms of life over the holidays. I am taking Jan Richardson's free online retreat for Women's Christmas 2017 - Walking the Way of Hope, I'm reading a Christmas gift book about hope and, in a very real way, I'm actively practicing hope each day as I look for a new place to live. The notion of hope is all around me.

For me, hope is not a Pollyanna-ish, frothy, pie-in-the-sky type of experience but a rooted, ever-available, undergirding strength that promises that even in painful times, even when hope itself flickers, there are unexpected gifts, new directions and fresh possibilities in each moment, if we have the eyes to see them.

There are those who decry hope as being future vs present-oriented and, therefore, not a useful concept. To these people I can only say that there have been times in my life when focusing continually in the present would have been overwhelming and traumatizing and, without the forward pull of hope, I might not have survived let alone thrived.

Jan Richardson, whose blessings I use so often in my workshops, calls us to hope in this way:

Rough Translations

Hope nonetheless.
Hope despite.
Hope regardless.
Hope still.

Hope where we had ceased to hope.
Hope amid what threatens hope.
Hope with those who feed our hope.
Hope beyond what we had hoped.

Hope that draws us past our limits.
Hope that defies expectations.
Hope that questions what we have known.
Hope that makes a way where there is none.

Hope that takes us past our fear.
Hope that calls us into life.
Hope that holds us beyond death.
Hope that blesses those to come.

Whatever your circumstances this New Year, may hope accompany, enfold and strengthen you and may you look ahead with eyes primed to find the best this year has to offer.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Spiritual & Religious Care Awareness Week - Oct 16-22, 2017 ...

Spiritual health is the path to inner peace
regardless of the turmoil around you.


Hi Everyone!

This week is Spiritual and Religious Care Awareness (SRCWA) Week in BC. The theme for this year's observance is a timely one, Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World. (See the Canadian Multifaith Federation's SRCWA Handbook "Theme Readings" for an excellent list of resources on forgiveness.)

While a significant portion of the population professes no spiritual leanings at all, most people agree that we humans are endowed with a spirit that requires as much care and attention as our bodies and minds if we are to be fully "well".

Our research shows that those with a strong, nurturing spiritual life are more resilient to the impacts of adversity - our own and others'. Hundreds of rigorous, elegant, peer-reviewed scientific articles show spirituality as the root of wellness in children throughout the first decades of life and beyond.

In her best-selling book, The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving,  Columbia University researcher and author, Lisa Miller, PhD, says that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances, 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers and 80% less likely to have unprotected sex.

At the other end of the developmental spectrum, the Canadian Military Journal reports that, "Whereas religion/spirituality impacts military operations writ large, it can also play a significant part in the healing of individual warriors after those same operations." The US Department of Veteran's Affairs  also cites positive outcomes of healthy spirituality on PTSD and depression in some trauma populations and on the intensity of clinical symptoms like anger, rage and desire for revenge in trauma survivors. Healthy spirituality can also help with meaning making, the processing of guilt and moral injury and grief and bereavement after trauma and loss.

Spiritual and religious care providers are among the least well-recognized helpers in our communities. Those who support others in their spiritual development, particularly through times of crisis -  clergy, spiritual directors or guides, chaplains, pastoral care volunteers and others - may have the benefit of having spiritual resilience practices already in their toolboxes but they are still at risk for compassion fatigue and burnout.

The sheer volume of people seen by spiritual care providers, the traumatic circumstances under which these people often seek support, the need to protect confidentiality, expectations of exemplary reactions and behaviours on their part, and not infrequently, a culture of competition and judgement can all contribute to the symptoms of post traumatic stress, emotional disengagement and loss of capacity for empathy that are the hallmarks of compassion fatigue.

If others' spiritual wellness is at the centre of your helping work, (and even if it isn't) you are warmly invited to attend the next Caring On Empty: Creative Tools for Compassion Fatigue Resilience workshop on Friday October 27th at the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver, BC. (email Jan for registration forms at

And if the notion of positive spirituality is new to you, or it's been a while since you've thought about it seriously, here are a range of books with ideas you might enjoy exploring:

1.  The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health and Lifelong Thriving  (2015) by Lisa Miller

2.  Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations (2016) by Richard Wagamese

3.  Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life (1992) by Thomas Moore

4.  My Grandfather's Blessings: Stories of Strength, Refuge and Belonging (2000) by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD

5.  Soul Moments: Marvelous Stories of Synchronicity - Coincidences from a Seemingly Random World (1997) by Phil Cousineau

6.  The Spirituality of Nature (2008) by Jim Kainin

And here are a couple of great spiritually-based websites:

1.  Brain Pickings: An Inventory of the Meaningful Life 

2.  On Being: The Big Questions of Meaning

Whatever your personal spiritual leanings, perhaps this would be a good week to nurture that part of your life and to notice and show your appreciation for those who work to provide spiritual solace and support for others' spiritual growth.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Is Compassion Fatigue a Myth ...?

I discovered that compassion fatigue is a real thing.

Chris Marlow

Hi Everyone!

Happy Autumn! And welcome back from a hot, dry and smokey summer. I hope you've kept safe and well and have managed to make some time for respite and refreshment.

During the summer heat, a colleague sent me an article suggesting that Compassion Fatigue (CF) is a myth because compassion research (not compassion fatigue research) shows no negative effects of using compassion in relationships. This critique, like others I've seen over the years, seems to indicate a misunderstanding of the basic concept of CF. It assumes that CF arises from the use of compassion rather than from trauma exposure.

CF is, at its core, a trauma issue, not one of compassion or fatigue, as the name might suggest.  In CF, exposure to others' trauma and suffering leads to symptoms of posttraumatic stress in the helper , culminating in a diminished capacity for, or interest in, being empathic with others' suffering and in emotional withdrawal from the very people we are trying to help.

We don't know, conclusively, what mechanism accounts for the transmission of traumatic stress from helpee to helper. Some researchers/theorists relate the transmission to emotional contagion through empathic engagement, some to overuse of compassion, some to underuse of compassion, some to the accumulated undischarged fight-or-flight energy from the helper's posttraumatic stress reactions to helpee's stories, some to workplace issues, some to the helper's unconscious need to atone for perceived childhood "badness" through "caring too much" for others, and others, to childhood attachment issues.

In my own experience of CF, the core experience was one of compassion becoming fatigued through acccumulated trauma exposure, not through overuse of compassion. Even now, I remember having a vivid daydream in which I was walking along a semi-circle of closed doors inside my head, pausing briefly to open each one in search of the caring person I used to be. I knew, intellectually, that I had once been that caring person but could find no evidence of her in my current felt sense. My caring, and even my desire to care, had disappeared - and, in fact, it took some years for it to return fully.

I believe that we in the field hold some responsibility for the ongoing lack of clarity regarding CF.  We often do not refer in enough detail to the rapid evolution of CF nomenclature when we teach about CF. We chose a "user-friendly" but ultimately confusing term in naming the experience "compassion fatigue" rather than "secondary traumatic stress".  And we don't yet agree on a standardized definition for CF. (Much of our theoretical fuzziness can be resolved through a careful reading of reading Chris Marchand's excellent article, Compassion Fatigue: History of a Concept.)

So, do I think CF is a myth? No, it is a real, painful and debilitating experience that requires the addressing personal trauma, workplace trauma and their accompanying burnout and accumulated grief in order to heal fully.  It is a response to trauma exposure rather than an over- or underuse of compassion.

The best news is that we now have skills and strategies that will help to ease the effects of our secondary traumatic stress and boost our resilience.

If you're interested in learning more, please do consider joining us at the next Caring On Empty Workshop at the Granville Island Hotel in Vancouver on Friday, October 27th. (email me at for registration brochures.)

Monday, July 10, 2017

Living With Uncertainty ...

Uncertainty is the refuge of hope.

Henri Frederic Amiel

Hello Everyone,

Again, it's been quite a while since I've been able to write here. I've been spending many hours a day working with the frozen shoulder that resulted from last year's fall and arm fractures and, more recently, I've also been working to find a new home after my landlords of 22 years decided to stop renting my half of the house (!) (Fortunately, neither situation has interfered with my ability to continue the teaching I love and plans are well underway for the fall workshops.)

As one who has always been more comfortable with a predictable life, this has been a time of uncomfortable uncertainty, a threshold time of limbo, angst and hope. Like all thresholds, it holds both anxiety and possibility. While I'm concerned about when my arm will heal and where my new home will be, allowing myself to live into the threshold experience has brought its own gifts. After the initial panic, I've found myself slowing down, waiting, and exercising (at least a modicum of) patience; spending more time with options and possibilities; and opening more to trust and synchronicity. It's been a liminal time of s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g and learning new responses to uncertainty and unpredictability.

Any time we humans find ourselves in the in-between place of uncertainty, a time when the familiar has already disappeared but the new hasn't yet arrived, we tend to experience a full range of uncomfortable reactions - fear, anger, irritability, grief, rigidity, forgetfulness, paralysis, loss of humour, aggression, fatigue, vulnerability and disorganization, to name but a few. If we can allow ourselves to tolerate, and even lean into the sources of this discomfort, and WAIT, we will probably find that it is also a time of hope and creativity.

Waiting in the threshold is an active kind of waiting. We pause as long as need be and then slowly put one foot in front of the other, trusting that we will see each next logical step as we move ahead. (As the poet, Antonio Machado, says the way is made by walking.)  This "active waiting" requires a great deal of presence, mindfulness, trust and listening, an openness to what is and to what might be. It asks us to be willing to risk living at the growing edge and being uncomfortable. It forces us to relinquish our desire for certainty and control and to walk into the fog of unknowing.

For many of us, questions like these help to guide us into and through the fog:

1.  How can I calm my body so I can think clearly?
2.  What do I want/need? What are the deep desires of my heart?
3.  Where am I now and where might I be headed?
4.  What is the meaning of this time? Why this and why now?
5.  How can I step outside the box of my habitual patterns and see this situation with "beginner's eyes"?
6.   What/whom will sustain me in this in-between place so my imagination and creativity can flourish?
7.   In what/whom can I trust and abide deeply to provide a supportive sense of hope?

Questions like these expand our awareness and help us to make better decisions as we make our way forward. Whether you're facing the uncertainty of job loss, a loved one's illness, the loss of a partner, economic uncertainty or other imposed change, may such questions help you to feel your way toward more certain times. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Reverence for the Earth ...

The earth and all creatures are
imbued with intrinsic value
and worthy of reverent care.

Bron Taylor

 Hi Everyone!

Tomorrow is Earth Day 2017 and a reminder that we are all tasked with being care-givers for our beloved planet. As with most tasks, this one is easier to fulfill when it flows naturally from deeply held values such as reverence for the Earth and all its creatures. 

Reverence is one of those words used rarely enough that we may be excused for being a little unsure of its meaning. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, "a deep respect for someone or something". The Reverence Project,  a programme of the Spirituality and Practice website, says that reverence enhances worth and awe and balances or counters wastefulness and ennui (a kind of world-weariness). It is a way of being and acting embraced by ancient cultures and valued, now, by our own indigenous communities.

Spirituality educators, Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, describe the basic spiritual practice of reverence this way:

Reverence is the way of radical respect. It recognizes and honours the presence of the sacred in everything - our bodies, other people, animals, plants, rocks, the earth, and the waters. ...
Nothing is too trivial or second class for reverence. But it has to be demonstrated with concrete actions. Don't abuse your body - eat right, exercise, get enough rest. Don't abuse the earth by being wasteful of its gifts. Protect the environment for your neighbours and future generations.
Reverence is also a kind of radical amazement, a deep feeling tinged with both mystery and wonder. Approaching the world with reverence, we are likely to experience its sister - awe. Allow yourself to be moved beyond words.

So, how might we take concrete action to show reverence for the Earth and her creatures tomorrow  and in the days to come? Here are just a few suggestions:

1. Spend time in nature every day - what we learn to love we will want to protect.
2. Make a baby-step change in your daily habits: don't leave the water running when you brush your teeth, turn the lights off when you leave a room, walk or bike or take public transit, fix a leaky faucet, give up bottled water, buy local, go paperless.
3. Make a phone call and encourage your elected representatives to follow through on the environmental promise to reduce methane emissions, no matter what other governments are doing or not doing.
4.  Do everything possible to save green space - and where you can't, plant new trees to help compensate for losses.
5.  Insist on power from clean, renewable resources.
6.  Develop a greener spirituality. Learn more by reading books like Essential Writings by Albert Schweitzer, A Sacred Place to Dwell: Living With Reverence Upon the Earth by Henryk Slolimowski, Sacred Trees by Nathaniel Altman, Field Notes by Barry Lopez, The Hidden Life of Trees by Tim Wohlleben and Tim Flannery,  Why I Wake Early and A Thousand Mornings and others by Mary Oliver, At Home On the Earth edited by David Landis Barnhill or What are People For? by nature poet Wendell Berry.
7.  Get involved in a community garden. Grow and share your own fresh produce.
8.  Volunteer for an environmental charity.
9.  Join a March for Science. 
10.  Go vegan or vegetarian.
11. Have an eco-swap party. Trade good old stuff with family, friends and neighbours.
12. Support green political initiatives

However you choose to mark Earth Day 2017, do it with reverence and allow yourself the joy of participating in the protection of this wonderful world.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations ...

All we have are moments. So live them as though not one can be wasted. Inhabit them, fill them with the light of your best good intention, honour them with your full presence, find the joy, the calm, the assuredness that allows the hours and the days to take care of themselves. If we can do that, we will have lived.

Richard Wagamese
Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations

Good morning, Everyone!

Yesterday, as I put my life back together after a week on Vancouver Island facilitating two wonderful workshops, my long-awaited copy of Richard Wagamese' last book, Embers: One Ojibway's Meditations, arrived in the mail.

Stopping only long enough to make a piping cup of tea, I curled up on the couch and opened the small volume, savouring its smooth cool pages, fitting photographs of Nature and her creatures and the sweet, spare, honest prose of Richard's hard won wisdom. Within moments, tears were rolling down my cheeks as I sat, overwhelmed by the emotional and spiritual power of his words. I thought, "This is my new book of scripture. My new source of sacred writings." If I could live my life in accord with these truths-of-the-heart, I would live my life well.

Richard writes as one who had long ago died in order to survive but then, at the time of writing, had come back to life in all its fullness. There is wonder, simplicity, authenticity and clarity in his wise words and every short meditation opens a window to hours of transformative reflection.

If you have not read this book, do order it now as a Spring gift to yourself. Here are a few quotations that may entice you:

Keep what's true in front of you, Old Man said. You won't get lost that way. I was asking about making my way through the bush. He was talking about making my way through life. Turns out, all these years later, it was the same conversation.
I'm learning that happiness is an emotion that's a result of circumstances. Joy, though, is a spiritual engagement with the world based on gratitude. It's not the big things that make me grateful and bring me joy. It's more the glory of the small: a touch, a smile, a kind work spoken or received, that first morning hug, the sound of friends talking in our home, the quiet that surrounds prayer, the smell of sacred medicines burning, sunlight on my face, the sound of birds and walking mindfully, each footfall planted humbly on earth.
There are periods when you exist beyond the context of time and fact and reality. Moments when memory carries you buoyant beyond all things, and life exists as fragments and shards of being, when you see yourself as you were and will be again - sacred, whole and shining.
There is sunlight in the mountains today. The morning is crisp and clear as untrammelled thought. Against the sky, the trees raise crooked fingers in praise. To be here is to be affected, made more. Filled. The creative energy of the universe. Drink it in, my friends ... 
May the rich writings of this lovely little book touch and help to transform your life.