When Your Big Heart Hurts
Here are a few things I know to be true about social workers and helping professionals in general (I am clearly doing some generalizations here—sorry!):
- We have BIG HEARTS.
- We love to help others.
- We struggle to ask for help for ourselves.
It’s not something we always talk about and in some ways is still surprisingly taboo in most social service organizations. The work we do is intense and often heartbreaking. We show up day and day again, hoping for a better day today. And maybe we do get a better day every now and then. But often we just see and hear more heartbreak.
I’m writing this post to make sure people know they are not alone. And that it’s normal to have big feelings about the work we do.
We witness things daily and are a part of people’s lives. We’re trained to practice empathy, which means we should be feeling and connecting with those we serve. When they grieve we grieve. When they are let down by the system, the community, their family, we feel that let down as well.
Yet we often don’t truly allow ourselves the grace to feel and ultimately to grieve. We think we need to be strong. We think that if we break down it means we aren’t cut out for this work, that we are weak, incapable. But we can’t keep going and staying empathetic if we don’t take that time to grieve. We are human after all, not super beings. And when we acknowledge our own vulnerability, our struggles, our grief, we realize how connected we are to those we serve and to the world around us. And in that connection, we can find strength.
Vicarious trauma/secondary trauma/compassion fatigue are all real. I know these all have different definitions and specific meanings, but ultimately it comes down to acknowledging that the work you do is affecting you. The work we do does impact us. And it is so important that we acknowledge that. That we talk about it. Thank we let ourselves feel and be real.
I’ve heard several co-workers talk about becoming numb. I’ve felt it myself. In fact, after my first 2 years in direct practice, I stopped working and went to another country to volunteer in a large part because I started seeing myself become numb. Becoming numb is one unhealthy response that occurs when we don’t talk about it and find ways to address the ways you are affected by the work you do. There are other unhealthy responses as well.
So fellow social workers, with big hearts, what can we do? We need to care for ourselves and one another. Our hearts and minds need regular nourishment to keep on loving and caring about those around us with such intensity. We can’t be afraid to ask for help and acknowledge our struggles. We are not weak if we need to give our hearts (and minds and bodies) some special attention. When we talk about it, identify it in our own self and in others, we can be proactive instead of just reactive.
If you’re struggling, if you are numb, if you have stopped seeing the good in the people you work with daily, if you can’t sleep, if you’ve developed unhealthy coping strategies, please know that it is okay and good to ask for help. Check out the EAP program your work offers, go to your doctor, see a therapist or counselor, read the self-help books, start a support group. Do what you need to do to address your compassion fatigue. Our world needs you and your big heart!
Not sure if you are suffering from Vicarious or Secondary Trauma and/or Compassion Fatigue? This website has links to several quick assessments that you can do on your own to help assess whether you may be affected.