Friday, February 27, 2009

The Silencing Response - A Symptom of Compassion Fatigue

Working in highly charged, disturbing environments and with people who have been seriously injured, ill or traumatized, exposes us to experiences, stories, thoughts and feelings that are potentially overwhelming because they are beyond our scope of comprehension, our desire to know or our sense of competency. When we become overwhelmed in this way, our ability to remain present and to listen to the pain of others is compromised and we are likely to draw on the Silencing Response (SR) for our own protection.

The Silencing Response is defined by traumatologists, Anna Baranowsky and Eric Gentry, (2006), as "a reaction ...which guide(s) the caregiver to redirect, shut down, minimize or neglect the disturbing information brought by an individual to the caregiver." In other words, when we are already emotionally overwhelmed, we find ways to silence others' painful stories so that their pain doesn't add to our trauma load. This is an effective form of self protection in one sense but in another, it can add to our feelings of guilt and shame as we realize that we are not the empathic listeners we used to be. And it keeps us from being effective helpers.

Here are some signposts, taken from the work of Baranowsky and Gentry, that can help us to determine whether we are using the Silencing Response as a defense in our conversations:

1.  Changing the subject away from painful material

2.  Avoiding a topic

3.  Providing pat answers

4.  Minimizing others' distress

5.  Wishing/suggesting that the other would "just get over it"

6.  Being angry or sarcastic with care recipients

7.  Using humour to change or minimize the subject

8.  Faking interest or listening

9.  Fearing what the client has to say or feeling numb before an interaction

10.Blaming or not believing others for their circumstances

11.Not being able to pay attention to what the person is saying or feeling bored

The up side to behaviours like the Silencing Response is that they act as smoke detectors to warn us of the need for action before the fire of Compassion Fatigue gets out of control. When we use this warning to motivate an investment in extreme self care and some good trauma therapy we can begin to recover, both for ourselves and those we serve.   


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