An old man was walking along a beach when he noticed a young woman off in the distance. As he got closer, he noticed that the woman was collecting starfish that had washed up on the beach and tossing them, one by one, back into the ocean. “Excuse me, young lady, but what are you doing?” the old man asked.
“All these starfish have been washed up by the tide. If I don’t throw them back they will die”, she replied.
“But there are hundreds and hundreds of starfish on the beach,” the old man said. “You can’t possibly make a difference.”
The young woman listened politely, bent down, picked up another starfish and tossed it into the ocean. She looked at the old man and replied, “It made a difference for that one”.
Adapted from “The Star Thrower,” by Loren Eisely
I love the starfish story; it doesn’t matter who I read that to, whether it’s to animal or human care staff, they all ‘get it’. Sometimes it makes people very emotional as they realise what I am going to say next. I always start my face to face compassion fatigue training with it as it makes people sit up and wonder what I’m doing!
In fact, this story is a very visual image of what compassion fatigue feels like, it’s that feeling of being totally overwhelmed by the ‘rescuing’ you are trying to do and the emotional toll this is taking on you.
When I finish reading the story I point out to the learners that this young woman is in very real danger. If she continues to walk along the beach trying to save every starfish she will become overwhelmed by the task but equally she also runs the risk of not noticing that the tide is coming in. The danger we all face when we work in any helping profession is that we get so absorbed by our ‘mission’ that we fail to notice the effect it is having on us and end up neck deep when the tide comes in. Now if we are lucky, someone might turn up to save us before we drown (think orange boat!) but for many of us this doesn’t happen so we end up in a very dire situation with only ourselves to rely on and sadly most of us are very ill equipped to do this.
I am vs I work as
The professions (with a big P) usually introduce and describe themselves as their job, “hello I’m a … Vet/Dr/Nurse/Lawyer etc. whilst people with other types of jobs will say “Hi I’m Bob and I work … in finance/in a restaurant/for Marks and Spencer’s etc. I’m just as guilty as everyone else; I spent years telling people that I ‘was a nurse’ but this is dangerous language and I no longer do it. Now I tell people that I work as a nurse. It’s a very subtle change but it can make a very big difference. You see most of us who work in the helping professions do so because we have a very strong drive to want to help. This drive can come from many different sources, some people come from families where service to others is seen as very important and a fundamental family value so children will be encouraged to join the helping professions. I often find that when we go around the room in the training and ask people to share why they work as a … they will begin by telling me that a parent/grandparent/uncle/aunt also does or did the same job! But equally through personal trauma some people are drawn into the helping professions, I’m sure that my father being ill and in hospital a lot gave me the drive to want to be a nurse and I thought they looked like they were having fun (not always the case I was to discover!)
So, in order to start to help people to become aware that they need to be more than their job to be able to survive it I will encourage them to tell me their name first, then that they are a parent/sibling etc. and then what they work as. This is important as through changing this one little thing we can help them become aware of the fact that if they identify too closely with their job and make it their life mission and then their job becomes stressful or begins to overwhelm them at times (which, by the way, is totally normal) they may feel they have failed as a person not just in their job. Feeling you have failed as a person in your personal mission in life will have a very serious and profound effect on you.
Learning to surf
If you have chosen to do a job where to do it well you need to give of yourself emotionally you also need to take responsibility for taking really good care of yourself!
No one forced you to do this job but you may have found it much harder than you could ever have imagined and sadly many employers provide staff with lots of training in how to wash their hands and bend over correctly (!) but not how to care for themselves emotionally. I’m hoping this is changing but in the meantime it’s up to us to be aware of how our job can affect us and make sure that we have lots of other things in our lives that give us joy as well as our jobs which we of course get immense satisfaction from otherwise we wouldn’t do it.
Dr Amy Cunningham an American psychologist has a really great TED talk online about compassion fatigue and she ends it with asking everyone watching to promise for the rest of their lives to take 10 minutes every day to do something just for themselves, to read or talk or walk, to meditate or just take a long bath and I think that this is very sound advice. Awareness of the issue is the first step and the next one is to act to prevent being left with your back to the cliff and the tide coming in. You saved the starfish but what about you?