When Compassion Hurts… We Are Confusing Our Pain With the Survivors’ Pain

“The difference between empathic distress and healthy compassion is our ability to keep our own nervous system steady.”

I have often been challenged by employers and trainees as to when caring becomes too much. When we are in the role of Care Team or Special Assistance Team member, being able to see the difference between a survivor’s loss and their pain, and keeping our losses separate, is essential in protecting our own health.

In the twenty-five plus years that I have been delivering training to employees who respond to survivors of a tragedy in the workplace, I have seen that nothing is more important than training in preparing individuals for this work. Realistic training where employees are exposed to some level of emotions that survivors will experience, and understanding how their response to them can influence long-term healing, is essential to helping employees understand how to be compassionate while remaining focused on their role and tasks.

Realistic training allows employees to make good decisions Choice for specific roles:

Employees who have a clear idea as to the emotional experience from trauma by meeting survivors and watching them on video, can make a better decision on two important points. First, the employee can decide if she wants to be in direct service to a family who has just experienced loss or a survivor who is badly injured. Many people who initially volunteer for training are not aware of the emotional toll that the direct exposure to survivors will take on them. After an intense training session, some individuals will decide that they would be better served in a logistical or support role—for themselves as well as the survivors.

Choice to Deploy at the time of the Crisis:

Secondly, before a team member accepts an assignment, they need to assess their readiness for duty. Physical well-being is essential as well as emotional suitability at the time. Many team members who have been well trained have declined deployment as they know they are not at their best physically at the time. Similarly, some responders choose not to accept a deployment as they are dealing with their own losses, relationship issues or other personal life experiences, which means that they are not at their best for supporting others at that time.

In training, when trainees see videos of survivors who are moving toward healing and recovery, this provides the team member with hope and encouragement about their ability to help another. When they witness these raw emotions that some survivors will display, direct exposure to survivors, or having seen them on video, they will know that this is part of the process and not the end for the survivors.

Employee Transcendence:

HSRTM uses a Helper’s Hierarchy for discussing needs of survivors which we adapted from Dr. Abraham Maslow’s Motivational Needs Hierarchy. Toward the end of the training, we use the same Hierarchy to discuss employee needs and the necessity for the responder to be aware of their needs during a response and following. Years ago when this work was new, we knew very little about this phase of the response. While most companies made mental health counseling available to responders, during and following the deployment—there was little else. Training should emphasize the need to take care of oneself during the response by eating properly, exercising, and staying emotionally connected to family during deployment, as well as continuing one’s spiritual practice during stressful times. This approach is a way to empower an employee during a response where they are often away from home-base and helps build resilience for other times when coping with stress in their own personal life.

In summary, we believe that training about the distress associated with trauma and the impact on one’s own health involved in helping a survivor during these times should be a major focus of training for employee responders. Knowing which role one can best play, while remaining emotionally centered, and knowing when to stay home are critical to helping Special Assistance Team and Care Team members remain healthy.

* McGee, Seana & Taylor, Maurice. Unraveling Empathic Distress, Spirituality & Health, March/April, 2013.