Thursday, February 25, 2016

Spring 2016 Vancouver Compassion Fatigue Workshop ...

 The expectation that we can be immersed in suffering and loss daily and not be touched by it, is as unrealistic as being able to walk through water without getting wet.

 Dr Rachel Remen, MD

Hi Everyone!
The Caring On Empty: Creative Tools for Compassion Fatigue Resilience for Helping Professionals workshop will be held at the Granville Island Hotel on May 6th this year and we hope you can join us!

Compassion Fatigue, (the natural posttraumatic stress, "fatigued" compassion, diminished desire to be empathic and emotional disengagement from the very people we're trying to help), affects most helping professionals at various times in our careers. It develops as we hear and respond to more and more stories of others' trauma, loss and suffering.

Some warning signs that we may be at risk for developing Compassion Fatigue are the loss of our sense of humour, feed-back from our family and friends that we're not fun anymore, dreading going back to work no matter how much time we've had off, profound exhaustion, sleep difficulties, irritability, anger and cynicism, uncivil behaviour, anxiety, emotional numbness or over-reactivity, social isolation, self medicating, increased sick time and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.   

This small (only 25 seats), discovery-based, multidisciplinary workshop will provide a safe and reflective space for:

Exploring the concept of Compassion Fatigue (CF) and how it differs from burnout,
Discovering your current CF risk and identifying personal early warning signs,
Assessing your current level of self care and learning to reduce trauma exposure,
Learning positive, practical strategies for reducing CF risk and building resilience and
Creating an ongoing personal resilience plan.

The workshop uses mini-lectures, film, self-reflection exercises and group interaction to help participants awaken to their current level of CF risk and create a personalized resilience plan. Others have loved the relaxed energy of this workshop and left asking for more!

So, if your work involves hearing stories of others' trauma and suffering - health care professionals and support staff, educators, therapists and counsellors, addiction workers, family court lawyers and judges, journalists, humanitarian workers, first responders, translators and interpreters, social service providers, clergy and pastoral care workers, and others -  this is the workshop for you. I hope to see you there! 

PLEASE NOTE:  The registration deadline is extended to April 22nd. 
You can email Jan at for a registration brochure.
Please share this information with colleagues and friends - Anti-Spam Legislation makes it more difficult to tell people about the workshop this year. Thank you!  Jan 

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Softening A Hardened Heart ...

There is beauty to seeing stone 
turned to moist soil, broken open, receptive
to the seeds of love.

Omid Safi

Hi Everyone!

Last time, we spoke about how our hearts can become hardened through repeated exposure to our own and others' trauma. Today, I'd like to move on to how we can begin to soften our hearts, allowing us to receive more love, nurture and support.

We all have a wall around our hearts. According to Persian tradition, the heart is a walled garden, an inner garden protected by an outer wall. When we have experienced great pain, our own or others', that wall can become a hardened fortress, protecting us but also keeping out the very ones who could be a source of our healing and renewal.

Omid Safi, Director of the Islamic Studies Centre at Duke University, likens this hardened heart to dry land - hard, parched and cracked. To break it open, to till and water it so it is ready to receive a seed of love, (a kind glance, a touch, a word, a compassionate action), takes time, patience, effort and vulnerability.

As Professor Safi says:

The seed of love falls on the heart's soil. Is it a hardened earth, a rock-covered surface, one that will have the seed washed away with the first water? Or is it a soil that has been prepared, tilled, softened up, opened up again and again and again, ready to embrace the seed of love that would surely come?

When we suffer Compassion Fatigue, our hearts' soil hardens and we become less receptive to the seeds of love sown by our colleagues, family and friends. As we recognize and acknowledge that this is the case, we can consciously make an effort to till, water and soften that soil.

Three ways we can soften the soil of our hearts are to practice self compassion, learn heart-centered spiritual practices and consciously allow ourselves to open up and become more vulnerable in our daily relationships.

1.  Self-compassion researcher, Kristin Neff, describes self-compassion as, "acting the same way toward yourself when you are having a difficult time, fail, or notice something you don't like about yourself, as you would toward a friend." She says that instead of just ignoring your pain with a "stiff upper lip" mentality, you stop to tell yourself, "This is really difficult right now. How can I comfort and care for myself in this moment?" You can learn more about practicing self-compassion on her website

2.  Heart-centered spiritual practices can be found in most spiritual traditions. The point of these practices is not to resolve our emotions or to figure them out but to simply to allow them to have some space within us without pushing them away. Here is one (slightly abridged) practice written by Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, Benedictine Abbess of the virtual online monastery, Abbey of the Arts.  (It is a simple practice that should only take about 5 or 10 minutes to complete.)
1.  Begin by becoming aware of your body. Notice how your body is feeling simply by being present to sensations you are experiencing, welcoming in both the body's delight and discomfort. 
2.  Connect to your breath, deepening it gently. As you inhale, imagine Love breathing life into you. As you exhale, allow yourself to experience a moment of release and surrender into this time and place, becoming fully present. Take a couple of cycles of breath to simply notice this life-sustaining rhythm which continues moment by moment even when you are unaware of it.
 3.  In your imagination, gently allow your breath to carry your awareness from your head (which is your thinking, analyzing, judging center) down to your heart center (where you experience life from a place of greater integration, feeling, and intuition). Consider placing your hand on your heart to experience a physical connection with your heart center and draw your awareness to this place.
 4.  Breathe into your heart center and begin to notice what you are feeling right now in this moment without judging or trying to change it. Take a few moments to simply be present to whatever you are feeling and making some room within yourself to experience this without pushing it away (this alone can be revolutionary for many of us - to just allow ourselves to have the experience we are having without judgment.)
 5.  Call to mind the spark of Love which the ancient monks and mystics tell us dwells in your heart. Bring the compassion of Love to however you are feeling right now, not trying to change anything, but just gently holding yourself in this space.
 6.  As you experience yourself filling with compassion for your own experience, imagine breathing that compassion out into the world and connecting with other hearts beating across the world in a rhythm of love.
 7.  Gently allow your breath to bring your awareness back to the room and take a moment to name or write what you noticed in this experience.

3.  Becoming more vulnerable to others, the third way we can soften the soil of our hearts, may seem like a risky weakness in our toughness-saturated workplaces. But, as shame and vulnerability researcher, Brene Brown, writes, "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren't always comfortable, but they're never weakness."
It takes honesty and courage to open ourselves to speak from our tender places and to receive the healing love of others. While it is important to choose wisely those with whom you will be vulnerable, it is also important to have people in your life with whom you can really be yourself, "warts and all", knowing that you will be accepted and respected. To learn more about intentional  vulnerability, try listening to Brene's TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability .

There are many more wonderful ways to soften the soil of our hearts but these three are a good start. Let me  leave you, once again, with the words of Omid Safi - There is beauty in stone being turned to moist soil, broken open, receptive to the seeds of love.

May this Valentine's Day bring each of you an opportunity to soften your heart and receive some much needed seeds of love.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Hard Heart of Compassion Fatigue ...

We seem to value "strength". We want "hard" bodies, "strong" minds, "tough" wills, "hard-as-nails" determination,"rugged" personalities, "sturdy" character and so on. ...  But let us praise softness. ... Let us seek a heart that is not hard, but soft.

Omid Safi

Hi Everyone!

This is a story about hard and soft hearts written by life coach, Darren Poke, in 2011, in Melbourne, Australia. I'd like to share it with you today as we approach Valentine's Day:

There was a young man named Tom who lived in a small village.
He was an angry young man, overreacting to every offense and keeping others at a distance.
 In desperation, his parents asked Tom to go and see the eccentric old priest who lived in the village.
The priest was renowned for his unorthodox methods that somehow worked.
When Tom saw the priest, the older man told the youth to go away and come back with two lumps of clay.
He returned a few hours later and then was told to make a vase out of one of the lumps.
The young man thought that this must have been part of the therapy, so he threw himself into the task with enthusiasm, believing that the opportunity to create art would help him with his temper.
He made the vase, decorated it and put it in the kiln to harden.
Upon completion, Tom presented the beautiful vase to the priest. He was proud of his accomplishment and believed that he was now cured of his anger issues. 
The priest smiled approvingly and gave the young man a hammer.
"Now hit the vase with this hammer," the priest commanded.
"But it will break my beautiful creation!" Tom protested.
"Hit the vase with this hammer," the priest insisted.
"Don't you like it? Isn't it good enough for you?
"Hit the vase with this hammer," the priest continued.
Annoyed, the young man snatched the hammer from the priest and tapped the vase firmly.
The vase immediately smashed into pieces.
"Now look what you've done," Tom said angrily. "You've wasted all of my hard work."
The priest ignored the outburst and left the room for a moment.
He returned with the second lump of clay and placed it on the floor next to the young man.
"I suppose you want me to waste my time by making another vase? Well you can forget about it!" Tom said rudely.
 The priest looked at him with kindness and said,"Hit the clay with the hammer."
"With pleasure!" the young man responded.
He swung the hammer with all of his might and it hit the clay with a thud, leaving a large mark.
"Happy now? What was the point of that?"
The priest picked up the broken pieces of the vase and held them in his hands before the young man.
"See this vase? This is like your heart. You think that you need to be hard to cope with the inevitable disappointments that happen in life. You respond with anger, bitterness and violence, keeping people at a distance, but it doesn't work. Your hardness makes you more fragile. Adversity breaks your spirit too easily."
The priest then picked up the lump of clay, it had a mark where the hammer had hit it, but it was still in one piece.
"You need to soften your heart and be more like this clay. It is still impacted by what happens to it, but it can be restored more easily. A soft heart forgives, loves and uses soft words. It understands that pain and suffering is a part of life and instead of fiercely resisting, it absorbs the blow. It still feels the pain, but isn't broken by it."

The protective hardening of our hearts is a common way of dealing with over-exposure to others' trauma and suffering. Some people make a conscious decision to create a wall of coldness, withdrawal, anger or prickly behaviour, (I know someone who calls this her "force field"), in order to save themselves from further pain. Others don't even notice that their hearts are becoming stony. It happens so slowly and insidiously that they are shocked when others point out that they no longer seem to care.  However it occurs, this hardening eventually takes its toll and we pay the price in the irritability,  brittleness, reactivity, cynicism and emotional fragility that are hallmarks of Compassion Fatigue.

So, how is it with you right now? Is your heart so hard that, instead of feeling protected, you are shattered by any bad call, hard session or emotionally intense event? Are you wondering where the caring person inside you has gone? Are you wishing you could soften your heart and become the person you used to be? Are you afraid to try for fear of being shamed in a workplace culture that only seems to value strength and toughness?

In the next post we will look at some useful practices for beginning to soften our hearts ( - just in time for Valentines Day!).