Awareness is key to being able to mitigate compassion fatigue. Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of compassion fatigue and take action if you notice them.
By Nora Riva Bergman, Lawyer and Coach, and Chelsy A. Castro, Lawyer and Psychotherapist
Why did you become a lawyer? As you reflect on that question, more than one answer may come up for you. Maybe you have wanted to be a lawyer since you were a child. We know many lawyers for whom this is true. Maybe your mom or dad was a lawyer, and they influenced you. Perhaps you were intrigued and fascinated by the law, or you saw the legal profession as a solid career that could open other doors for you. Whatever your reason (or reasons), we are pretty sure that helping others was part of your decision. There are plenty of negative lawyer jokes out there. But the truth is, lawyers care. And sometimes, lawyers care too much.
What Is Compassion Fatigue?
Like burnout, compassion fatigue is a human response to overwhelming stress. The symptoms of burnout and compassion fatigue are similar. Some symptoms of both conditions include emotional exhaustion, excessive worry, negative thoughts, sleep disturbance, disorganization, and a feeling of helplessness. While they are similar in their symptoms and how to protect yourself against them, there is an important distinction between the two. Burnout is the result of work-related pressure and stress. Compassion fatigue results from the cumulative effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events. And although “the symptoms are similar, compassion fatigue results over a shorter period of time due to the intensity of the suffering.”[44:1]
In an article for the North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program, Beth Hudnall Stamm described compassion fatigue as our brain’s neurological response to continual exposure to trauma. For lawyers, this is your clients’ trauma. You hear their stories every day. You live with their stories. You often take their stories home with you at night. “Unfortunately, all the best legal training in the world cannot turn off our mirror neurons, that highly-evolved part of our brain that responds neurologically-emotionally to other people’s distress as an involuntary response (even when we might not have any conscious awareness of an emotional response).”[44:2]
There is a cost to caring. Professionals who listen to clients’ stories of fear, pain, and suffering may feel similar fear, pain, and suffering because they care. Sometimes we feel we are losing our sense of self to the clients we serve … Those who have an enormous capacity for feeling and expressing empathy tend to be more at risk of compassion stress.
– From Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized[44:3]
Stamm notes that judges are at greater risk of developing compassion fatigue because they are exposed day after day to the traumatic stories from the parties before them. In addition to judges, attorneys in the practice areas below face a heightened risk of compassion fatigue because of the issues involved in their clients’ cases:
- Criminal Law
- Family Law
- Personal Injury and Workers Comp Law
- Medical Malpractice Law
- Personal Bankruptcy
- Wills, Trusts, and Estates
What You Can do to Protect Yourself from Compassion Fatigue
To protect yourself against compassion fatigue, the first step is awareness.
The reality is that lawyers are human beings. Any person, regardless of professional competence, can develop compassion fatigue. The struggle for lawyers is the assumption (both their own and that of others) that they will not be impacted by the work that they do. The reality can be quite different. Lawyers that are exposed to traumatic stories and events may have physiological reactions such as increased heart rate, breathing rate, and muscle tension. They can have emotional responses such as sadness, anger, or fear. They may also experience changes in their assumptions about life, other people, and issues of safety.
– From “Keeping Legal Minds Intact: Mitigating Compassion Fatigue” [44:4]
Awareness is key to being able to protect yourself from and mitigate compassion fatigue. Pay attention to how you are feeling. Recognize the signs of compassion fatigue and take action. One of the best articles we’ve seen on compassion fatigue in the legal profession is from the Missouri Bar. [44:5] Although its focus is on judges, the suggestions on responses to compassion fatigue are relevant to all lawyers. Below are just some of the research-based strategies suggested in the article, together with references to relevant lessons in the book 50 Lessons for Happy Lawyers:
- Recognize the situation and the signs that led to it.
- Find resilience. See Lesson 3: Why Resilience Matters.
- Start with the basics: enough good sleep, fitness, and eating well. See Lessons 17 and 36.
- Think about:
- What do you really enjoy? See Lesson 32: Do What You Used to Do – Play.
- What gives you meaning in your work and personal life? See Lesson 5: Get Clear on Your Why.
- What will help you recharge? See Lesson 39: Recovery Is Essential for an Athlete’s Performance. Yours, Too.
- Focus on those items.
- Plan to do them soon.
- Embrace your sense of humor. See Lesson 20: Have a Good Laugh.
- Seek support.
- Spend regular time with family and friends. See Lesson 31: Cultivate Positive, Supportive Friendships.
- Participate in creative non-work activities. See Lesson 32: Do What You Used to Do – Play.
- Turn to your hobbies.
- Take time away. See Lesson 39: Recovery Is Essential for an Athlete’s Performance. Yours, Too.
- Vacations are important.
- Take one or plan one soon.
- Take mini-breaks and regular vacations.
- Small mental breaks – see a play, a movie, a concert, or your favorite sport.
Living the Lesson
- Understand that you are a human being. Your response to the trauma of others is not different because you are a lawyer.
- Work to increase your self-awareness.
- Familiarize yourself with the symptoms of compassion fatigue and take action if you notice them.
[44:1] Gray Robinson, “Preventing Compassion Fatigue: When Lawyers Care Too Much” Attorney at Work (August 12, 2021).
[44:2] Beth Hudnall Stamm, “Compassion Fatigue” North Carolina Lawyer Assistance Program (Accessed March 1, 2022)
[44:3] Charles R. Figley, Compassion Fatigue: Coping with Secondary Traumatic Stress Disorder in Those Who Treat the Traumatized (Charles R. Figley ed., 1995).
[44:4] Linda Albert, “Keeping Legal Minds Intact: Mitigating Compassion Fatigue” Wisconsin Lawyers Assistance Program (April 24, 2015).
[44:5] Anne Chambers, “Judges and Compassion Fatigue: What Is It and What to Do About It” The Missouri Bar (Accessed March 12, 2022)
This article has been excerpted from 50 Lessons for Happy Lawyers: Boost wellness. Build resilience. Yes, you can! (Berroco Canyon Publishing (May 26, 2022) by Nora Riva Bergman (JD) and Chelsy A. Castro (JD, MA, AM, LCSW). Nora works with attorneys as a Certified Practice Advisor with Atticus, Inc., coaching successful attorneys to improve their practices and their lives. Chelsy is CEO and Founder of Castro Jacobs Psychotherapy and Consulting, a firm specializing in lawyer well-being. A portion of the proceeds from the book will benefit the Greater Good Science Center, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and the Institute for Well-Being in Law. It is republished here with permission. 50lessonsforhappylawyers.com
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