“The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another.”
– Thomas Merton
Honestly, “interdependence” is not a word I like. It means I have to be dependent, vulnerable, and sometimes broken in front of those I love and respect.
But when did we make vulnerability a bad thing? We were made to live in community and in relationship with one another. Just think: we’re most alive and at our absolute best when we’re interacting with and living life alongside one another. And if we are to walk through our lives with those around us, doesn’t that require some level of trust and vulnerability? Unless we desire a life of superficial relationships, I suppose so.
As a counselor, my job is to be professionally compassionate and invite such vulnerability. Who wants to go talk to a counselor who doesn’t care, who can’t empathize? So my compassion meter should, in theory, be full for me to be at my professional best. But because I’m human, I have to continually assess and re-assess my life and relationships and take stock of what I say and believe is important to me.
Otherwise, compassion is the last thing on my mind.
Compassion fatigue or burnout is a real problem in the “helping industry.” Therapists, doctors, pastors, social workers, and teachers often suffer from emotional trauma during the course of their professional lives. When compassion burnout isn’t addressed, we then begin to become more and more self-centered, losing our awareness of our brothers and sisters suffering in isolation alongside us. But it is only by receiving compassion that I can in turn keep walking in compassion. It is only by intentionally placing myself in the direct line of relational fire that I experience true community and interdependence.
It takes risk and courage to do this day after day.
It takes courage when you’ve been hurt in friendships and romantic relationships.
It takes bravery to reach out when you’re in pain or lonely.
Loneliness—the opposite of interdependence. I firmly believe that loneliness is one of the most powerful emotions we feel. It affects the core of our being, our beliefs about what we have to offer in relationships and to the world. Loneliness is fuel for doubt.
But we can change that. We can point out healing when it seems hopeless. We can shout about the power of healthy and loving relationships, even when it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to invest in our lives. We can sit compassionately with those in our community who daily struggle with mental illness and addiction and tell them, over and over, “You are worth more to me than you will ever know.”
Brothers and sisters, I am sorry. I’m sorry that sometimes I lose hope for my clients and allow bitterness to take up root where hope should have its home. I’m sorry that as a counselor, as someone who is trained to cope with emotional pain, it’s sometimes difficult for me to shoulder my pain and that of those around me at the same time.
But it is this interdependence with my friends and family, this need for relationships, that keeps me present and engaged. If I thought I could handle the pain, suffering, and junk of the world, I’d be doing it on my own and alone. Rather, I have to walk alongside you to be able to keep walking. To remember how hope and love have profoundly changed my life, and to be able to remind others of this when they are unable to remember for themselves.
I want to challenge you today to do something that makes you feel vulnerable or uncomfortable—share something you’ve struggled to be honest about with a friend. Invite them to do the same. This is what life is about. You and me, we were made to be encouragement, support, love, and hope for each other. It doesn’t work when we turn our backs on each other, but only when we extend our hand.
We find love when we love. We receive when we give of ourselves.
Sarah B. is a therapist, a listener, and an advocate. Raised in the Midwest and now living in the South, she’s made it her life’s work to point people to hope and healing. Sarah is one of millions who have battled depression and anxiety and is grateful to have found her own path to health within a community of deeply loved friends and family. She is passionate about helping people find freedom from addiction and pain so they can carry hope and light to those who are in darkness.
I wish every counselor would look at every action or inaction toward clients with the intention of answering your question: “Does this tell my client that s/he is worth more to me than they will ever know?” Or, alternatively, the more harsh question: “Will this tell my client that s/he is worthless?” I have one of those big, gaping, wounds, and I have no clue how to heal it. There is no handbook for clients who have been given a resounding “you are worthless to me” message by a counselor. I tried the obvious things when it happened to me…attempted reconciliation, offered the second chance…it didn’t work. I had to quit counseling. It still hurts. I still feel worthless. There’s a prevailing sentiment, a prevailing hope on this site that “help is good”; I can tell you that when something goes terribly wrong in a counseling situation, you feel lost and forsaken and hurt. And, hopeless about help. My situation is hopeless, but I hold hope for others, and I certainly don’t wish what happened to me on any other person. I feel that if a counselor can stay focused on your number one idea, s/he will be able to help clients regardless of level of training or theoretical orientation. It’s an inspired focus. I wish you the best.
P.S. And by the way, this is my answer to your challenge.
I encourage you to find another counselor. It is not to late to find the help you need.
That’s a sweet thought, but I think at the bottom of my situation is a simple explanation: if I were more lovable, I would be better cared for – more loved. I am too damaged; I’ve been through too much and I have too many wounds. People don’t want to know my pain. It’s too big, it’s too much, it’s too complicated, it’s too deep, it’s too messy. People want to run from it. Counselors want to run from it, and they do. It’s too much effort to meet me where I am. It’s too hard. I’m just not lovable enough for anyone to make that effort. I’ve been shut down and turned away enough to know that that’s true.
Great article Sarah! It’s amazing to me that something inside us tries so hard to be independent when our deepest longing is for connection and intimacy. You are so right to point out that healing happens in relationship and community.
Danielle [Left of Lost]
As a social worker and advocate, I feel this every day. It is exhausting to realize, that despite all my training, I still try to shoulder my own pain/problems/fears/doubts ALONE, while I shoulder my clients’. Compassion fatigue is a real problem in my life lately.
I find myself being honest about my weaknesses and fears so much more lately, too a very select few friends.
This is exactly what people need to hear! I totally believe in the value of vulnerability. Words like these are what inspire me to become an art therapist <3
Thank you for this article. As a student going to school for Social Work, I’ve often thought about this exact issue. It’s unbelievably comforting to know that I’m not the only one who worries about this. Thank you for these words that have given me a better understanding, and I will remember them if or when I get that “burnt out” feeling. Thank you thank you thank you. 🙂