Friday, October 16, 2009

What is CF Anyway...?

I don't spend a lot of time at my computer but, in order to keep up with new writings about Compassion Fatigue, I receive regular Google alerts citing blog posts, articles in the popular press and more scholarly articles from academic journals. Something I've noticed lately is an increasing diffusion and fuzziness in the understanding of CF, particularly in the blogs and the popular literature, and it concerns me a little because I don't want to see compassion fatigue go the way of codependence.

Codependence was a very specific and useful term within the context of addiction treatment and then it "grew like Topsy" to be applied to anyone who ever "enabled" anyone else to do anything and even to those who were merely practicing kindness. Codependence became a term that no longer had clear meaning because it was being applied to everyone.

As I've read various blog posts and articles lately, I have noticed that as uninitiated people are drawn to and identify with the notion of CF and want to spread the word, they are writing about the condition as "chronic weariness" or "feeling stressed" or being otherwise depleted. While all these experiences are true of most CF sufferers, they do not define compassion fatigue itself.

CF is a serious but natural consequence of working with suffering or traumatized people or animals, or with our wounded planet. It is, first and foremost, a response to secondary trauma exposure. We must have been exposed to the trauma in others' lives and have been negatively affected by it before we can say that we have compassion fatigue. We must have developed secondary posttraumatic stress symptoms culminating in a diminishing capacity for, or interest, in being empathic with others' suffering, hence "compassion fatigue".

And while burnout is almost always a precursor of CF, CF is not a form of burnout. Nor is it clinical depression. I have seen it called both, possibly because people reading about this young and quickly evolving term may not have realized that we have moved on from a particular understanding of the phenomenon.

We are probably still a way away from a "final" definition of this phenomenon but if we can be as clear as we can be in defining our terms, we are more likely to reach the people who deserve support and treatment and to offer them the most useful assistance. ie good trauma treatment and improved resiliency skills.

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