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Excerpt from my book: Surviving Compassion Fatigue

Over many years of service, I have had the honor and pleasure of working with a diverse group of people. They represent the Black cultures, Latin cultures, Native American cultures, Asian cultures, Middle Eastern cultures, and European cultures. When planning this book I thought that I might compare the level of self-care that each group in each culture engages in, contrasting those with propensity to engage in self-care against those who are relentless in their service and pay less attention to self-care.

I realized that to do so would have been pretentious on my part as there are so many exceptions and variables within cultures, given the varying experiences and personalities of individuals within each culture. Our propensity to manage our self-care well, or not, doesn’t seem to be linked to a particular culture.

More than the general culture where we grew up, our personalities and our coping styles also determine how we work through stressful situations. As children, we may not have been given permission to establish our own boundaries in terms of what works for us and what does not. The messages given us by family dynamics can even suppress our awareness that we have had enough and need to take a rest.

How we manage our self-care and who we become as helpers is shaped by many factors: the responsibilities placed on us early on, our communities and/or places of frequent fellowship, the people we live with, and other helpers that we closely observe.

Many of these influences are very subtle, yet they can shape us. For example, within all cultures there are people with higher levels of tolerance for stress than others. Also, within all cultures people have unique perspectives, perceptions, and responses to the traumatized.

In my case, my father was always a kind and sensitive parent and was very concerned that we were able to be children and not push us into adult responsibilities prematurely, but one day he made a comment to me that, to this day, invites me to persist relentlessly in a problem when I should give it a rest.

That day, my father, my sister and I were working hard trying to fix up a special space in our home for my mother who was returning from a brief hospitalization. I got tired and wanted to stop, so I plopped down on the couch and said “I’m tired. I’m done.” My father, who had already worked his night shift by that time and had gotten my sister and I ready for school and dropped us off and then retrieved us from school, simply said to me “Don’t be lazy—we have got to get everything ready for mommy.”

He didn’t accuse me of laziness; he simply admonished me not to be. However, I perceived it as letting him down. Over the years when I felt tired enough to stop I would hear his voice saying don’t be lazy, and so I wouldn’t stop. It was not just the words he said but the fact that I was looking at him knowing that he was exhausted too but he attended to the preparations for my mother with great detail, passion, and love.

I felt ashamed of myself for simply wanting to stop helping. Throughout my adult life and still now on many levels I try hard not to let anyone down.

I suspect many of you reading this share with me this driving force: a sometimes relentless determination to help.

Learn more about my own personal journey and find out how you may be putting yourself at risk in my book Surviving Compassion Fatigue: Help For Those Who Help Others

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