Friday, February 25, 2011

Shame and Compassion Fatigue ...

Shame is an experience that has no redeeming features. It is always negative and wounding.

Shame differs from guilt. It is the sense that we are inherently flawed - that we are bad vs having done something bad. It is a feeling that makes us want to hide our real selves for fear that those around us will find us unlovable and abandon us should they discover what we are really like.

So, what does shame have to do with Compassion Fatigue? I've been thinking about that question all week and have come to the hypothesis that shame may be a major factor in maintaining CF.

The impact of shame appears at several points in the CF trajectory:

1. Early on, shame may have helped to motivate our choice of a helping career. For example, if we were shamed in a healthcare or crisis setting while young, we might, consciously or unconsciously, have become drawn to rescuing people in similar situations. If we were shamed for our dependence or weakness as children, we may have chosen work where we could experience a sense of independence, power and control.

2. Later, as we encountered traumatic events and accumulated losses in our work, shame may have kept us from sharing with colleagues our natural human responses to terrible situations. We may have come to believe that one has to appear strong and invulnerable in order to be accepted.

3. As we began to develop symptoms of CF, we may have felt that we couldn't tell anyone about those symptoms or ask for help for fear of being ridiculed or found lacking.

4. As our symptoms increased, we may have begun to realize that we could no longer care for others in the ways that we had in the past. Our capacity for empathy had disappeared. The identity that we had built as particularly caring, compassionate people had crumbled and we may have felt profound shame about no longer being the people we were "supposed to be". Judging ourselves harshly, we may have withdrawn from the very people who could have supported us.

And, thus, shame undergirds and maintains the experience of CF.

The way that most of us deal with shame is to avoid being vulnerable, as you can see above. In our North American culture, any kind of vulnerability is judged as weakness and a potential source of shame. We generally feel much safer when our vulnerability is masked by our "strength" and protected by the armour plating of perfectionism, distancing, and emotional numbing.

However, this kind of protection comes at a cost. We can lose spontaneous expression our real selves, our connection to others and our ability to tap into the strength and support of our spiritual lives. We become lonely, isolated, and empty. And we numb that pain with busyness, workaholism, and the compulsive use of alcohol and other drugs, gambling, spending, sex, exercise, and food.

So, what can we do to increase our tolerance for vulnerability and thus reduce our shame? Social Work researcher and author, Brene Brown, suggests that we can embrace our vulnerability by:

1. Practicing authenticity, courage, connection and compassion

2. Practicing gratitude

3. Honouring the ordinary in our lives rather than the extraordinary - eg nature, children, play, community

4. Allowing joy and love to enter our lives so our reservoirs will be full when bad experiences come our way.

If you would like to learn more about the impact of shame in our lives and how to build shame resilience, there are several good books on the topic:

1. I Thought It Was Just Me by Brene Brown

2. The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown

3. Shame and Guilt: The Masters of Disguise by Jane Middelton-Moz

4. Facing Shame: Families in Recovery by Merle Fossum & Marilyn Mason

5. Shame: The Power of Caring (Revised Edition) by Gershen Kaufman

And if anyone has thoughts about these ideas, please feel free to comment.

Photo by Bigstock Photos

No comments: