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BossWoman eNews – September 2005
Combining prosperous work lives and balanced personal lives

Welcome to the September 2005 edition of Susan Robison's free e-mail newsletter for women business owners, executives, and professionals.

Our goal is to bring you news, insights, and information about leading a balanced and prosperous life while making a difference. If you are on this list you have been a client, an advocate, or attended a workshop. Pass this newsletter on to others who might be interested. This e-mail list is not sold or exchanged. Details on subscribing (and unsubscribing) are at the end.

In this issue, you'll find:

  1. Compassion Fatigue
  2. BossWoman coaching
  3. Up and coming workshops
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1. Compassion Fatigue
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Have you been feeling so badly for the survivors of Hurricane Katrina that you feel overwhelmed or numb? You are not alone. These are common feelings when you have compassion fatigue, the burn out that comes from sustained empathy for the suffering of others when you are not suffering yourself. You might feel sad, overwhelmed, even shut down or angry. You might feel like you want to escape from thinking about the devastation to the communities in the Gulf coast states hardest hit by the hurricane and then you might feel guilty for wanting to escape when you are not even directly affected by the damage and displacement.

Let me help you with that guilt. Your compassion proves what a caring person you are. If you didn’t have such a huge capacity to observe suffering and feel empathy for your fellow humans, you wouldn’t be concerned about the people whose stories are unfolding in the media. Unfortunately, though, excessive suffering on your part can diminish your capacity to maintain your own responsibilities including the responsibility to respond to this tragedy in ways that might be helpful. Here are some things you can do to remain effective in your own life and to help out those in need.

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Pace Yourself
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Consider limiting media exposure to your capacity to handle the emotions evoked. Many people learned in the days following the terrorist attacks in September 2001 that the unrelenting media coverage wore them out. When you feel overloaded, take a break. Watch or listen to other media. Take a walk. Hug your child. Pet your cat. Focus on your tasks, duties, and normal life, occasionally returning to thoughts about the situation. It does not mean you are heartless; it means you have a heart. Pacing yourself allows you to keep contributing to the general well being of yourself and those around you. Trauma counselors and human service workers learn in their training how to connect with their clients without becoming the clients. They take breaks and practice good self-care or else they run the risk of suffering from burnout or leaving the field prematurely when they still have much to give. So, too, you need to replenish the well before it runs dry. You can only be an instrument of healing when the instrument is effective. (For ideas on how to be the “container” for other people’s stress without becoming stressed yourself, see the July issue of the BossWoman newsletter).

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Take Action
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By taking action, you will feel less helpless and guilty about the suffering of those strangers whose plight you learn about in the media. There are several ways to translate your compassion into action.

  • If you do know someone directly affected by the displacement or have the capacity, offer temporary residence to the evacuees.
  • If you live in cities to which evacuees have been displaced, consider volunteering in some capacity including some of these ways:
    • Collecting basic hygiene products or clothes to deliver to the shelter.
    • Helping with phones to locate separated members of the families.
    • Offering jobs to the evacuees.
  • If you are removed from the path of the hurricane, consider making a monetary contribution. Pick a reputable charity such as the American Red Cross.
If you do not live near the Gulf or in a community to which evacuees have been moved, consider helping out on an unrelated project in your own community. This might not make common sense but it does make psychological sense. When people feel helpless about an event far away such as the Tsunami or the London bombings, engaging in helping behavior on an unrelated cause fights that helpless feeling. Research from the Heart Math Institute in California shows that altruistic acts lower stress in the action taker. While you cannot contribute to all causes and charities and tragedies, you can concentrate your efforts on ones that fit your own values and opportunities. For example, this time of year in areas where schools are starting up, volunteers are needed to help out with sports programs, religious education, and scouts. There is always a need to help at nursing homes and assisted living facilities. As your compassion for the displaced infirmed of the hurricane wells up in you, if you cannot help them directly, focus that compassion on the needy in your own community.

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Keep Perspective
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Being compassionate means being aware of our vulnerability to suffering and of our connection to others’ suffering. When we suffer from compassion fatigue, we may want to run and hide as though that would be a way to protect ourselves and our loved ones from harm. But you cannot hide. I know of no part of the world that is removed from the possibility of natural disasters whether they are floods, mud slides, ice storms, tornadoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc. When something happens to our fellow humans, it touches our hearts. You can imagine how awful it would be to experience the physical threat, the loss of loved ones, and the disruption of normal life. Sometimes we feel lucky it isn’t our turn and then we feel guilty about that feeling. It is alright to feel relief that it is not your area of the world. That is a natural and appropriate response as long as you remind yourself that a natural disaster from weather could also involve your own community.

Furthermore, electronic devices and methods of rapid communication have shrunk our world so that most of us know someone touched by recent disasters and terrorist attacks. We are all part of the same family of humankind. I knew three acquaintances who were in the London tube when the bombings took place. Two got off one stop before one of the bombing locations and the other rode through there just before the attacks.

The solution to our fear is to keep living life in ways that have integrity and to reach out to those who are less fortunate than us at the moment. It is alright to feel grateful for what you have and to recognize the preciousness of life so that you do not take anything or anyone for granted. Next time it could be your turn and you might need the compassion of others.

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Accept the Compassion Challenge
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One of the effects of compassion fatigue is that we can become cynical and hard hearted in order to protect ourselves from the pain of trying to take in what is happening. The downside of that protective response is that we also become hardened to the pain of ourselves and our loved ones. When we lose the capacity to tune in to our own pain, we shut down self-awareness and no longer pay attention to our physical and mental health. Setting limits on exposure allows us to identify with the survivors of the tragedy without getting overwhelmed.

We can only reach out to others to the degree that we are aware of the pain we would feel in the same situation. The ancient Greeks recognizing this package deal when that called compassion after two words meaning being able to “suffer with” our fellow humans. The other challenge of compassion is finding ways to “to suffer with” those who are different than ourselves in age, gender, ethnic background, social class, religion, etc. It is harder to feel compassion for those to whom we cannot relate. When we perceive a great difference between ourselves and, say, those who were looting in New Orleans, we lose the ability to apply our compassion to their suffering.

Psychologists, such as Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan who studied moral development, asked subjects under what circumstances a person might be justified in stealing to help a family member needing food or medicine. The researchers found that subjects with a high level of moral complexity could imagine how circumstances of desperation could lead a normally moral person to commit such obvious antisocial acts. Subjects with lower levels of moral development had more difficult relating to situations that they had never experienced themselves.

Compassion fatigue causes us to distance ourselves from “those people” who are different from us and who must be at fault for doing “stupid” things like refusing to leave their homes. When we lose our ability to feel compassion, it lays the foundation for hatred and prejudice. We depersonalize “those people.”

We forget to ask ourselves under what circumstances we might refuse to leave our homes. When one of the Washington D.C. radio stations did a “person on the street” survey about whether home owners stay behind with their pets in an evacuation, most pet owners said they would not leave their pets. If you are a pet owner, you can probably relate to concern for your pet left behind in a flood. Suddenly, “those people” are no longer so “stupid.” They are caring pet owners like you in a terrible situation. Once you perceive them to become like you, you are able to relate to them. The challenge of compassion is to see all human beings as having at least some similarity to yourself. Then you will be able to extend yourself in ways that do not cause burnout. The key is to set limits on your viewing and helping without becoming cynical and burnt out.

You can continue to grow in your own ability to feel appropriate compassion with healthy limits if you keep your tender heart open. It may get a little bruised but it will serve you and all of humankind better in the long run.

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Conclusion
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Take care of yourself. Help where you can.

Susan Robison

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2. BossWoman coaching
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About the publisher: Susan Robison, Ph.D. is a professional coach, speaker, author and seminar leader. She loves to coach women who want improvement in:

  • work-life balance,
  • career transitions,
  • building your business or practice,
  • time management,
  • increasing productivity.
If you are feeling stuck on the way to your ideal life, give Susan a call for a complementary half-hour coaching session.

She provides keynotes and seminars to business and organizations on the topics of:

  • leadership strategies for women,
  • relationships,
  • work-life balance,
  • change.
She offers her audiences a follow-up coaching session because she knows that workshops don’t work.

Contact Susan for your coaching, speaking, or seminar needs at Susan@BossWoman.org or at 410-465-5892.

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3. Up and coming workshops
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I am currently booking workshops for the fall and winter. Contact me if your group needs a speaker on the topics listed above.

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BossWoman e-Newsletter is intended for informational and educational purposes only. Coaching should not be construed as a form of, or substitute for, counseling, psychotherapy, legal, or financial services.

© Copyright 2005 Susan Robison. All rights reserved. The above material is copyrighted but you may retransmit or distribute it to whomever you wish as long as not a single word is changed, added or deleted, including the contact information. However, you may not copy it to a web site without the publisher’s permission.

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