Compassion Lost and Regained

Betha Gutsche /

Compassion is a quality found in abundance in libraries. Many people enter the field spurred by an urge to help others, to improve their lives by connecting people with knowledge and resources. In the webinar on Understanding Compassion Fatigue in Your Library, attendees were asked what compassion fatigue looks like to them. As the chat window began its rapid scroll, the surge of responses revealed as much about the amount of compassion offered up in libraries as it did about the subsequent burnout from over-extending.

  • “taking all your customer's problems onto yourself”
  • “the frustration of caring too much and not being able to fix ‘broken toys’ any longer”
  • “being so empathetic with patrons that it wears you out!”
  • “identifying too much with others”

Library work is not generally included in the roster of “helping professions” along with health care, counseling or teaching. It should be, because its workforce is just as likely to experience compassion fatigue. Judging by the number of people who registered for the webinar (over 900), the topic hit a nerve in the library world. Compassion fatigue is defined as a caregiver’s reaction to chronic stress with symptoms of hopelessness, anxiety, self-doubt and physical fatigue. This chat comment captures the angst:

 “I've got 14 years experience now, have had ups and downs, but am having a REALLY hard time letting go lately.  Feel like I need more than a mental health day, more like a month.”

Although many attendees may have hoped for quick fix solutions, presenter Linda Bruno wisely laid out the reality up front: there is no magic bullet. However, there are tools to help adjust one’s response to stressful situations. Linda’s primary toolbox for compassion fatigue consists of understanding personality types based on the Personalities system and practicing emotional intelligence. Ultimately, it is up to each individual. “Nobody can improve the situation for you but YOU.” Linda summarized 3 steps, which are achievable but won’t necessarily happen overnight:

1.       Stop and look at what the situation is doing to you.

2.       Look at how you can change your response to the situation.

3.       Decide what you are going to do differently in the future.

[How do you respond to your compassion fatigue? Take the poll at the end of this article.]

The Personalities system is a useful device (akin to Myers-Briggs) for recognizing common characteristics of the many different people we interact with every day, especially those who come through the library doors. The system looks beyond demographic differences, and divides people into four basic types, with names derived from the Greek temperaments— Popular Sanguine, Powerful Choleric, Perfect Melancholy, Peaceful Phlegmatic. The webinar worksheet lists the strengths and struggles associated with each type. According to Linda, Perfect is the most common personality type among library workers; Peaceful is the second. Sounds pretty good right? But when people are stressed, they move into their struggle areas and the negative personality traits surface.

Emotional intelligence asserts that four basic capacities of a person— self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management—are every bit as significant as IQ for success in life. Augmenting all of these capacities can take years of study and practice. Linda focused on the first two.

  • Self awareness is the ability to examine (not suppress) one’s own emotions. Combined with the insights from the personality type behaviors, this ability helps us to untangle the emotions of a situation and put them into perspective: why is the patron acting this way; why am I feeling this way? This is step #1 above.
  • Having taken a step back from a situation through self-awareness, self-management follows. “It’s your ability to use your awareness of your emotions to manage your own behavior in a positive way.” If the patron is acting this way because of a predictable stress response for his personality type, then how can I disengage from my instinctive gut response (based on my personality type) and change my response? This is step #2 leading to step #3.

Managing compassion fatigue is also about taking care of yourself first. Linda compares it with the airline safety instructions to parents: “put on your own oxygen mask first.” It’s not about selfishness; it’s about the reality that if you don’t keep yourself healthy and balanced, you won’t be able to help others. Take time to do things that give you pleasure, using clues from the personality types. For example, if you’re a Popular Sanguine, be sure to spend pleasurable time with people outside of work. In response to the “I don’t have time” complaint, Linda asks, “do you have time to be sick, to be stressed by work, to take it home with you?”

Wise observations flowed from the chat window as well, suggesting that there was already some relief from compassion fatigue just by attending the webinar:

  • “The solution is to understand what you are dealing with so you don't take it personally. Each person's solution will depend on the person/situation you are dealing with.”
  • “Remember to avoid the weak side of my personality type(s) and draw on the strengths--and try to move the stressed person more towards their strengths; be patient with self and others.”
  • “Remind myself that while I have heard the QUESTION a million times, it is the first time for this person.”
  • “Desk time now...let's put this to the test! I'm pumped!”

Webinar Resources

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