Saturday, August 20, 2016

Brief thoughts on compassion fatigue

Brooks originally wanted to design the doll so that it cried more and more hysterically until it got what it wanted, but Hasbro said this was unworkable. The doll had to remain at the level of entertainment, rather than become an actual simulation of human life.
Gaby Wood, "Living Dolls"

When a small boy washed up on the coast of Turkey a couple of years ago, a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo provoked a small outcry when it depicted the youth, in a counterfactual universe, growing up to be a man who harasses women (“our” women!). I’m not sure what the original intent of the author was, although it seems like an ironic comment on the racist double standard whereby well-off white lads are given lenient sentences when they actually do commit an assault, but dead Arab boys who have yet to hit puberty are a sad case, but maybe let’s not get TOO upset, because who knows what they'll be like if they grow up

Although such prejudices may exaggerate a lack of compassion, many people saw the sadness at an individual level but then simply felt overwhelmed by the scale of the issue. Most people that I know want to have some kind of compassion towards the many unfortunate people out there. However, as individuals we can only do so much while trying to live our own lives successfully. When compassion fatigue sets in, burnout may follow.

Burnout is characterised by an increased cynicism and emotional fatigue, as well as doubts about the value of one's work. Within the helping professions (e.g. counsellors, mental health nurses) occupational burnout is quite prevalent. Furthermore, within these professions burnout should be of particular concern, as it has the potential to quickly affect others; a burnt out psychologist won't offer the same quality of care to a client. Indeed, this is also the case among informal caregivers (e.g. people caring for a relative with dementia); a burnt out family carer is more likely to see their relative go into long-term care outside their own home. To put the impact of burnout in context, the state of the art in this area is still unclear on the distinction between burnout and depression. Perhaps the lack of a consensus on how exactly burnout should be defined doesn't help.

I suspect that a major risk factor for compassion fatigue and burnout is overly high expectations in helping, and perhaps high expectations of the person receiving help. Help offered in a psychological context is rather more complex than the endangerment of a small child's life. No one who seeks help is perfect, and sadly many people engage in self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviour. When does sympathy give way to frustration, which gives way to apathy? How long does one bang one’s head over the misattributions some people make before one stops trying to point them out? Self-care is important, so is self-awareness, and so too awareness of the other.  

Perhaps there’s something more fundamental underneath all this. Do we want to go beyond compassion and understanding to something deeper? It’s prosaic to say that a display of emotion (e.g. sadness) in another person can make us feel sad in our own way. But can true empathy (feeling what another person feels) truly exist? Or are feelings that appear to be shared simply a simulacrum of what we perceive to be the other person's emotion? The answer is the latter. Each consciousness is private. Will a difficulty in accepting this worsen compassion fatigue?

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