Law in Contemporary Society

Compassion Fatigue in Humanitarian Work

-- By MinahSo - 01 Mar 2018

I. Introduction

One, two, three, four. One homeless person on each block it takes me to walk to work. One day, I observe a dog sitting with one of them. I stop for a minute, disheartened at the dog's suffering. Later, I'm still affected by the image and feel compelled to deliver her some dog food. After that day, I pay attention more to what's going on in the streets. But the more I take notice, the feelings evoked become stronger. I begin to block things out.

Two years later-one, two, three four. A homeless person and a homeless dog for each block it takes me to walk to school. I do not stop or look. I barely even notice. It's disturbing to consider the transformation in retrospect.

Human adaptability is the miracle of our survival. However, continuous exposure to anything has the possibility of adapting into something awry. Compassion fatigue is a condition that affects many professionals, but is deemphasized in the legal sector because it does not play out as obviously as one would believe. For these reasons, vigilance is crucial to preventing lawyers from emotionally wearing themselves out as others' hardships become a part of everyday life.

II. What is Compassion Fatigue?

Compassion fatigue is not burnout. Burnout is an advanced state of physical and mental exhaustion. Compassion fatigue, on the other hand, is the accumulation of emotional and physical effects that vicariously result from continuous exposure to trauma experienced by others. It is not an exclusive phenomenon of the weak-willed, but can happen to anyone who chooses to care. Compassion fatigue is not predictable and varies with an individual's capacity for empathy, an involuntary emotion hardwired in the brain.

Many lawyers starting their careers in humanitarian or public interest endeavors share primary assumptions and hopes as to what the world could be with some assistance from like-minded people. However, after continuously darting from one client's nightmare to another's and only bringing about incremental change, these assumptions can be easily shattered and faith in the possibility of progress dimmed.

III. Nothing to Blink At: Attorney Impairment

Helping others is an admirable goal, but the shrouded threat that comes from within the practice largely goes by unnoticed and without reason. Compassion fatigue has largely led me down one of two paths: emotional overinvestment that eventually progresses into repelling anxiety or surgical apathy. It is obvious that overwrought emotions can have substantial effects on one's work, leading to distraction and interference with the logical, highly qualitative decision-making process that is required of public interest attorneys. On the other hand, blank indifference presents an equal risk of negatively affecting the relationships lawyers have with their clients and friends, as well as their professional ability to maneuver the highly personal context of complex cases with tact.

Further, if lawyers are responsible for gauging fear in the eyes of the people on the streets, shouldn't something be done when the former start averting their eyes for fear of feeling too much? Because of an aversion to so many contentious encounters in a single morning, I changed my route to work, avoiding the streets I knew harbored hidden crevices sheltering cold bodies. Should something not be done when lawyers stop even noticing the people (and the dogs) on the streets suffering right in front of them?

The issue is inevitably aggravated in the system within which we operate. It is easy to become inundated with unhappy clients who expect substantial improvements or sweeping advancements rather than what usually takes place within a restricted system-change that feels more lateral than upward.

IV. What to do

Some believe that emotional management is a purely personal issue that must be dealt with as a normal part of emotional and psychological maturation. However, despite the fact that the emotional component can be so deeply intertwined with one's profession, the former oddly slips behind the shadow of more "substantive" work. It becomes a problem for "later," even though the mechanisms are changing the pathways in our brains right now. If an ethics course is required of all law students before graduation, why not require compassion awareness training?

For a concept that is so fundamental to the reason why many of us decided to attend law school, alarmingly scant attention is given to these motivations. Seminars or regular evaluations may be a better use of students' time during their upper class years so they can implement what they learn as they increase their interactions with emotionally harrowing situations through clinics and volunteer opportunities. Simply by informing law students of the existence of potential psychological effects of vicarious trauma, we can allow them to recognize common symptoms after gaining real work experience and arm their early on in their careers.

In the actual workplace, organizations might benefit from providing attorneys with resources, such as support groups or other forums, through which experiences can be shared. Simple communication with others similar situated has proven to be instrumental in its therapeutic value. Otherwise, final product and productivity could be significantly hampered.

V. Conclusion

To a certain extent, emotional intelligence can be improved through training. Other professional, such as caregivers, are specifically trained to take on heavy emotional burdens, and yet the legal profession places aseptic logic over emotional capacity despite the proposition that mismanaged feelings can steer the latter into dark places. Increased focus on this unspoken part of legal careers will allow everyone to cope with the natural losses and hardships that occur in these highly sensitive practice areas. We want to encourage people to hope for the change that is inherently difficult rather than run for smoother waters.

I wonder at the absence of psychotherapy as an idea in an essay that is about the need for psychotherapy.

I think it is particularly important that you see that the phenomena with the name "compassion fatigue" result from holding in your own mind and body trauma that has been transferred from people you are trying to help. Whatever name is given to the situation, the transfer of trauma is the crucial place from which to begin thinking about living with it as an occupational condition.

Dissociation, which is about going down another street in the mind, is, as you say, a primary adaptive capacity. Its second-order consequences, both internal and external, are what the therapist is in that sense "curing," not the mechanism by which our mind and brain kept us alive. If you were going to amend this draft, which probably doesn't need amendation, I think that would be the direction in which to try to push the thinking a little further.

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r3 - 08 Apr 2018 - 18:47:19 - EbenMoglen
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