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Compassion Fatigue: FAQ with Jessica Dolce

By September 28, 2015General


We’re so excited to have been able to interview Jessica Dolce, who is extremely well known in the animal world and specifically with compassion fatigue. As she says, “I help people who care for pets, people, and our planet learn how to take better care of themselves and reconnect with the joy of their work.”. Learn more in our interview below.

Sarah: Tell us about yourself and a brief background.

Jessica: I’ve been working with companion animals for almost 15 years, primarily as a dog walker, but I also spent a couple of years working in a small, open admissions animal shelter in Maine. Along the way I’ve volunteered with a variety of shelters and pit bull advocacy groups in Maine and Philadelphia I write about my work on my blog Notes from a Dog Walker and through my project Dogs In Need of Space (DINOS). http://notesfromadogwalker.com/ and http://dogsinneedofspace.com/

And this whole time I’ve been trying to figure out how to do this emotionally challenging work and stay well! To help with that, in 2103 I became a Certified Compassion Fatigue Educator. Now I teach classes on and offline to help animal care workers and volunteers gain a better understanding of how they’re impacted by the work they do and what they can do about it.

Sarah: Do you have any pets/dogs? Breed, age, name?

Jessica: I sure do! I have five senior pets at my house, so it’s a little like running a small, furry old folks home around here. There’s Birdie, our 13.5 year old Beagle mix, Boogie, our 8 year old pit bull mix, and our three cats Gus, Gizmo, and Penelope.

Sarah: Compassion fatigue – have you dealt with this yourself? What made you want to help others?

Jessica: I was deeply impacted both personally and professionally by compassion fatigue and burnout, especially while I was working at the shelter and co-running a pit bull advocacy group in Maine. At the time, I didn’t really understand what was happening to me and I really crashed.

It took a few years to figure out that I wasn’t alone in what I was experiencing – it was compassion fatigue. Once I understood that, I was better able to care for myself and move forward. I wrote about my experience in detail here

It’s important to me that others have access to the tools and resources that I wish I’d had back then. So that’s why I built my online classes – I wanted to offer accessible, affordable education around this topic to anyone who needs it. No one should feel alone in this!

JDolce2Sarah: How do you go about helping others? Would you consider yourself a therapist?

Jessica: I’m an educator, so my primary focus is on bringing information and self-care tools to my students. I’m not a therapist or a counselor, although I do bring in a licensed clinical social worker to talk with my students about how and when to seek professional mental health help.

But it’s important to note that compassion fatigue isn’t a mental illness or disease. Compassion fatigue is a predictable and natural consequence of engaging in the complex and stressful work of caring for animals (and people) who are suffering and in need. Compassion fatigue is really an occupational hazard.

So there’s nothing wrong with you if you experience it. It’s a normal reaction to the work that we do and most of us will experience compassion fatigue at one time or another in our careers. That’s where education comes in, because once we understand compassion fatigue and how it affects us, we can take steps to help ourselves.

That being said, most of us would benefit from professional mental health help because this work is hard and we deserve good support! Many of us also bring unresolved trauma, pain, and mental health issues with us to our work with animals and the intensity of the job can stir a lot of things up that require professional mental health help.

Additionally, compassion fatigue, left untouched, can develop into something more serious, such as clinical depression, so it’s important that we know when to reach out for help. Self-care alone isn’t enough if we’re clinically depressed, feeling hopeless, or having suicidal thoughts. That’s when we need the help of a mental health professional.

Sarah: How do you know if you’re suffering from compassion fatigue?

Jessica: Compassion fatigue is a highly individualized experience, so no two people have the same set of symptoms. This means that we need to get better at paying attention to ourselves and noticing changes in our bodies and behaviors. Self-awareness is key to managing compassion fatigue.

Here are a few common symptoms:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion
  • Isolating ourselves from others
  • Anger and irritability
  • Cynicism
  • Sleep problems – like insomnia and hypersomnia
  • Bottled up emotions
  • Persistent physical ailments
  • Sadness
  • Hopelessness
  • Using substances to numb out or self-medicate: drugs, alcohol, food, etc.
  • A reduced ability to feel empathy and compassion for others and ourselves. Being disconnected and desensitized – it’s the opposite of the very qualities that brought us to the work in the first place and is common in experienced caregivers.

Sarah: What can animal welfare advocates do to prevent this from happening?

Jessica: I’m not sure that compassion fatigue can be prevented completely, since it’s normal to be affected by the work that we do. But we can learn to manage its impact on us and become more resilient to the challenges of the work.

The first step to managing compassion fatigue starts with learning to recognize how it’s affecting you personally. We can’t do anything about it, if we aren’t aware of what it looks and feels like. The Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project by Patricia Smith has some great information and the book When Helping Hurts by Kathleen Ayl about compassion fatigue in the veterinary professions is also very helpful. So you can start by reading a book, hiring someone to do a workshop at your organization, or taking a class – find ways to learn more.

In addition to understanding and acknowledging compassion fatigue, we need to commit to self-care. Often, we spend all of our time and energy caring for others, and we leave ourselves with absolutely nothing left over to take care of ourselves. That’s not sustainable.

JDolce1Learning how to set limits and create healthy boundaries, so that you have a cushion of time and energy left for daily self-care and stress management is critically important. Without it we can become compromised and unable to do our best work.

Self-care helps us to do ethical, effective, and sustainable work!

A new session of my online course Compassion in Balance starts September 28th. Registration is now open. More details can be found below: http://jessicadolce.com/compassion-balance-ecourse/

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Wallace the Pit Bull Foundation is a 501(c)3  non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of dogs and the people who care for them.


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