Fight Burnout and Compassion Fatigue With Lots of Self-care Ideas

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For years I have sought out with fierce determination conversations, books and articles such as this. Articles with titles like “5 Steps To Wellness,” “7 Must-Have self-care Tips” or “10 Ways for a Healthier You.”

From peer-reviewed articles to O Magazine, I sift through pages with critical eyes looking for that aha moment where I find something new to share with teachers, administrators, students and other caring professionals. I usually ignore the introductions and skip ahead to the bullet points and bold print, only to find the same strategies time and again, like mindful breathing, healthy boundaries, diet and exercise, aromatherapy, etc.

It is this moment when I immediately feel let down … again. How can something as simple as taking care of ourselves turn into something so challenging? Why don’t these things feel satisfying? What is getting in the way?

Seven years ago, I started out on a mission to break down self-care, give it some rules, some structure and some checkboxes. I saturated myself with data and conversations with anyone who had gained ground in this area. I wanted to synthesize in a bento-box format the dos and don’ts of self-care.

I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel, so my focus was professional and personal strategies, from low-impact disclosure, hand-brain model, setting healthy boundaries and much more. At one point I included more than 40 different self-care strategies in my presentations, but STILL got feedback wanting more strategies. What the ... “More?” I wanted to scream. “I just gave you 40, like an hour ago. You want more?”

Culturally we have been in training to achieve more with less, that exhaustion equals a job well done and that seeking out immediate gratification and stimulation is better than investing in wellness. The ugly truth is that most of us wait for our circumstances to change, or for the right time to participate, you know, when we feel like it, or when life forces us to.

We seek out immediate gratification in strategies that require the least amount of effort and attention, and usually ONLY in areas we feel like working on. The truth is, we don’t need people to give us more strategies; we are perfectly capable of doing that for ourselves. With a click of a button we can Google organization and boundary tips, classroom management, dealing with difficult personalities, diet, etc.

We already know how to find strategies, so that isn’t the real question. The real question is: What gets in the way of feeling authentically well for you? Consider for a moment that what you really want is to learn about something we can do that we actually feel like doing.

Feel good self-care: Let’s say there are two self-care categories. The first category is the kind that gives you immediate gratification and nourishes your soul, like laughing with a friend who just gets it, getting a massage, taking in a deep breath, organizing your desk, drinking more water, snuggling with your puppy, etc.This kind of self-care we can creatively coin the feel good self-care. It’s the one most of us think of when someone asks us what we do for self-care.

Smart self-care: The second category we’ll call smart self-care, which I have affectionately nicknamed the sucky self-care. A solid truth I’ve come to understand is that smart self-care is not something we feel like doing, but it’s the kind of self-care we are starving for. Smart self-care is about cultivating strategies to address things like healthy boundaries, vulnerability, toxic relationships, reactiveness, numbing, scarcity, failure, success, etc. All things we tend to avoid if possible (yes, some of us avoid success).

I’m going to trust that you have the feel good self-care down. Let’s focus on the smart self-care then. The rules are basic:

  1. You aren’t really going to feel like practicing smart self-care, but you have to even when you don’t want to, especially when you don’t want to.
  2. You need a structure to lean on. Something to frame your approach, a touchstone so to speak. I use: self-reflection, forethought and connection.

Self-reflection requires knowing yourself. Are you more likely to respond or react? What does that look for you? A reaction happens without our permission. It is when our overworked limbic system slams into a primal stance of fight, flight, freeze and a new one, numbing, so that we are at the complete mercy of our lizard brain (yes, that’s a thing). Understanding your primal instinct gives you an opportunity to chose how you can respond (not react) in stressful moments. Here are a few strategies that can help you along the way:

  1. Dan Siegel's Hand-Brain Model. This strategy changed my life. I use it today with the university students I teach and with the elementary students I work with. Understanding that biophysically your brain works in directions that are not always in alignment with your values is a game changer. It is incredibly empowering to catch yourself in a reactive moment and move toward a response that is closer to the person you want to be. Clinically we word this process as the integration of your internal processing finding alignment with your external situations. It’s a fancy way of saying that feelings are real, but not always reality, and remember you have the power to control your response.
  2. Brené Brown’s work on boundaries. Brené is best known for her research on shame and vulnerability. I think her work on boundaries should be a lesson in everyone’s book of life. In her book “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brené invites us to use mantras that help us through the times where we know it would just be easier to be who others want us to be. The deal is, all of us have a default button: Its sole purpose is to help us feel connected and accepted by others. We say yes so that we don’t have to be present with the uncomfortableness of saying no. Brené invites us to borrow her mantra, “Choose discomfort over resentment.” I make the topic of boundaries last for an entire week with my graduate students. This stuff takes time. Be patient with yourself and forgiving, but be superbrave and keep going. It pays off!

Don’t get confused by forethought. It’s not planning, not really. Plans tend to feel so permanent, and since we’re just in the dating phase of smart self-care, let’s not commit to something as permanent as planning.

Remember that default button? Well, it activates when you’re stressed or put on the spot. This default response is primal, it happens for the most part without your permission, and it often pulls you away from your core values. With self-reflective practice, you probably have an understanding of what that looks like for you. I, for example, go straight to fight or numbing mode. It’s not about fighting the primal reaction (hint: It’s got thousands of years of evolution on you, you’ll totally lose). Rather, how do we work with our default when we are in situations that catapult us into reactive mode?

  1. A very helpful tool is the pre-mortem strategy. Pre-mortem is used often in the business world by project managers to assess the risks of a project, use a bit of forethought for what to do if and when things go badly. It’s the same idea and principle as having a boundary mantra. Have an idea beforehand what you’re going to say if the room begins to go into a red zone of emotion, or have a plan to give yourself time to connect with the part of your brain that helps you rationalize and problem solve. The reason for doing this is that your brain will go into that limbic stance of fight or flight, and you won’t necessarily be able to respond in a way that leads to a healthy outcome. You can jump-start your focus when you practice forethought and have an idea of what to do when you are placed in a situation where there is high potential for things to shift in a direction you’re not comfortable with.
  2. Another cool tool to use in forethought is called low-impact disclosure. STOP sliming each other! I have slimed and been slimed by others many times in this work. Sliming happens, according to Francoise Mathieu, psychologist and author of “The Compassion Fatigue Workbook,” when caring professionals — in an effort to debrief something difficult they have experienced in their work —  unload on unsuspecting colleagues, friends, family and apparently strangers in the cereal aisle at the grocery store (I mean, that’s what I’ve heard …). The problem isn’t alleviating burdens through debriefing itself. Healthy debriefing is absolutely necessary for everyone in caring professions. The problem happens when we take away the choice from others as we unleash our distress, our irritation and our judgement on others without their consent. Sliming breeds cynicism, leading to burnout (the gateway drug of occupational stress). Burnout thrives on cynicism. We can mitigate this process through low-impact disclosure, as it teaches us to have a bit of forethought before we slip into sliming mode in order to seek out healthy pathways of debriefing the challenges of our work.

There are thousands of evidence-based studies that confirm we are hardwired for connection. We live in a culture that is increasingly lacking in empathy and celebrates independence rather than interdependence. Isolation can be so seductive when we are experiencing shame, anger, feelings of failure, depression. On a regular basis I am asked to come speak about finding that life-work balance, which can look drastically different for each of us.

I don’t know that there is just one answer. I do know that none of us do this work alone. Connection is a way to balance in our lives. Connection to nature, our environment, community and loved ones. So what gets in the way of connection? Our judgement, our bias, our ideas of how things are suppose to be, feeling rejected, etc.

  1. The space: Philosopher Martin Buber says that connection happens in the space between us. Clinical psychologist Hedy Schleifer takes this concept of space a bit further in her 2010 Tedx talk “The Power of Connection,” stating that we need to take responsibility for that space, otherwise we pollute, misplacing our emotions into the space.
  2. Vulnerability: You can’t talk about vulnerability and connection without bringing up Brené Brown’s Ted talk, “The Power of Vulnerability.” Brené argues that connection comes down to our sense of worthiness, and in order to feel connected we have to be a bit vulnerable in the process. Our society, however, has stigmatized vulnerability as a weakness, and we avoid weakness like the plague. But weakness is not what the research tells us about vulnerability. In fact, courage is a more likely definition to vulnerability. It’s being able to share who we are in the most authentic way. Sometimes, a lot of times, it feels counterintuitive to be vulnerable. I am not suggesting that you expose your underbelly to everyone who passes by. I am saying that when we see someone fully embrace vulnerability as a necessary part of life, we feel connected, because we know what it feels like to sit with the uncertain and what it take to be brave and show up. Watch the talk, it will change your life.

So what do these concepts and strategies look like in practice, in life? This summer I facilitated a self-care discussion at Camp Wellalogy sponsored by the Humboldt County (California) Office of Education. I used a technique called Open Space Technology (OST), where the agenda of the meeting is created through the passions of your audience. Here are some questions from that discussion.

Q: (Fifth-grade teacher) I’m scared about dealing with angry parents. One parent brought me to tears at an IEP last year, and I just froze. I am so afraid that will happen again this year. What if I shut down again?

A: Self-reflection: You already know your reaction when someone begins yelling at you; you shut down. Now that you understand that about yourself, and you have an idea about what is going on biophysically, you can jump-start your focus through some forethought. Using a pre-mortem strategy, find a mantra to tell yourself if you do go into shut-down mode. This is a boundary issue as well. At what point do you draw a line and say a boundary has been crossed, and now the space is polluted? Identify that line, be vulnerable and connect with your team so that you can come up with ideas, working together, on how to manage aggressive behaviors in such meetings.

Q: (Special education teacher) I’m the only one who does what I do at my school so I feel like I never get a break. I’m so overwhelmed, all I do is work. How do I find time to take a break without feeling the guilt about needing a break?

A: Research tells us that the healthiest approach to this concern is to work less. Life tells us we can’t afford it, and we would be letting people down. One approach I can offer comes from Cheryl Richardson, a life coach, who suggests creating space for ourselves by clearing our schedules for one half-day per week (try per month if a week is too much) and spend that time doing what we need for our wellness (i.e. catching up on work, cleaning up the house, gym, movie, errands, etc.). Remember, culturally we are trained to work until exhaustion. This strategy may feel counterintuitive as feelings of guilt or even shame may occur. Moving through this can feel extremely vulnerable. Remember, “choose discomfort over resentment.” Stick with it! You can plan for the day that is least impactful, you can use some of your allocated personal time to cover pay (use it, that’s what it’s for), draw up a lesson plan, and even reserve a substitute (“The Compassion Fatigue Workbook”). Self-compassion.

Q: (Administrator) I know what I need to do for a better me, but I can’t get started. How do I convince myself to just get started: having those difficult conversations, making time for me, treating myself better, stop saying yes to everything because I care so much?

A: There are a number of ways we can look at this. In her 2011 TEDx talk, Mel Robbins, CNN contributor and creator of “The 5 Second Rule,” shares that it takes approximately five seconds for our brains to talk us out of something. Example: We know we have to have that difficult conversation, and within five seconds we journey ourselves through a scenario: The person will get upset, they might start yelling, it’s easier to just deal with it, etc., and voila, we have allowed our feelings to choose our actions for us. The problem is, our feelings are not always in alignment with our values. There is actual science around the five-second rule that gives your mind time to make a choice and remember those values through the unsupportive feelings you may have. When you count down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 and then move, you can jumpstart your brain to activate and move away from unhealthy thought patterns. Full disclosure: You’re probably not going to feel like having that conversation just because you apply the five-second rule, but you will start acting in alignment with your values and your wellness, and that is when you really start feeling great about yourself. It’s a perfect tool to strengthen our willpower. Just like a muscle, willpower gets stronger the more we use it.

The first step in smart self-care often begins with a conversation we have with ourselves, a difficult conversation, asking, What’s working and what’s not working? What gets in the way? What needs to change? How do I invest my time?

Many of us hope against hope that the one-time “difficult conversation” is the solution to the discord in our lives. As if one workshop or self-care book will change the landscape of our lives. If you truly want to see the landscape with new eyes, see it shift, then you will have to participate. You’ll need to shift your approach from a single “difficult conversation” to a continuous (sometimes uncomfortable) dialogue.

Brené Brown encourages us all to start living a wholehearted life where we embrace our vulnerabilities, and, in the presence of the daily stressors, we actively participate in creating the storyline of our lives. Self-reflection, forethought and connection are paths we can choose, but really, all this boils down to what you need.

My dad always says, “Feelings are real, not reality.” Smart self-care is something we really don’t feel like doing all the time, but at the end of the day it brings us closer to living wholeheartedly. 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 ... Go!

Larissa Krause is an associate clinical social worker who works for a Humboldt County, California, elementary school and lectures at Humboldt State University as the assistant director of distance learning and field education for the Department of Social Work. She also researches and presents on the topic sustainable wellness and self-care practices for caring professionals.

  • Corine Brown

    Beautiful…thanks for taking the time to share. No doubt you know your stuff!

  • Jondi Whitis

    One of the best and most enjoyable discussions I’ve seen on this. Kudos! I run several courses, including Emotional First-Aid, so I see the need (and lack of knowledge about this) all the time. We share and appreciate a similar collection of approaches and sources. You rock, Laurissa. I’d love to have a conversation with you soon. Kind regards.

  • Kelly Marie

    Thank you for this thoughtful, well researched, and structured approach to this topic! This is one of the best articles on self care that resonates beyond the obvious!

  • Paty La Mariposa Hernandez

    Wonderfully said Laurissa! I too teach self-care yet focus on the self nourishment. I ask first where do they feel imbalanced or overwhelmed, then what are they doing now. Sometimes people simply need permission that what they’re doing (walking their pets, laughing, bike riding) is enough. I never teach more than 5 techniques and we always practice them so they can experience it.

    This article is a great reminder of the importance of the work we do; educate and practice.

    Great discussion too!

  • Mark

    Good article. I really like Pia Mellody’s Work on boundaries. She includes something that has been neglected these past 3 decades from SW practice: spirituality. Are we so enlightened that we no longer need spirituality? We over emphasize the cognitive at the expense of the spiritual.

  • Denise Williams

    Well done Larissa, Self care is something we all know we need to do and we do need to do it pre-mortem, before things fall apart. I will use and remember this.