When You Can’t Fix It

May 30, 2024

I work with the givers of the world: the healers, the leaders, the brave souls out there trying to make things better in big and small ways.  Often what troubles them most are the moments when they’re confronted with things that they just cannot fix.

When you’re wired as a caregiver, this drive to help, the calling to alleviate suffering — it’s the engine you run on.  And so often there are situations in which we just can’t help in the way we want to.  Your caregiving engine doesn’t have a gear for this, and it creates so much discomfort.

I get it.  When I worked as a counselor in Employee Assistance, we thought of ourselves as the “emotional ER.”  We were often the first point of care for people navigating the worst day, the worst time, of their lives.  In the best cases we could offer tools, guidance, and layers of concrete support to make things better tangibly and quickly.  We could ease the hurt and worry; watch it dissipate before our eyes.

But there are tragedies so great, heartbreaks so raw, unfairness so gaping that nothing can touch it. There is simply nothing we can do. I’ve felt the overwhelming responsibility of attending to unimaginable pain.  Husbands who had just lost their spouse to cancer. Mothers whose child had taken their own life or died by overdose.  Lovers who’d been stunned by infidelity.  Charged with attending to such suffering, I sometimes felt so small and inadequate, like it would swallow me whole.

This experience can be so profound that the caregiver themselves can be injured: a second victim.  In the most extreme, this is called vicarious trauma.  More often we navigate pain we can’t alleviate, over and over, and it becomes a slow drip of helplessness, a veil of detachment that eventually blooms into burnout. The internal phrase, “I’m not doing enough,” repeated over time becomes “I am not enough.”

In my years as a counselor, I learned about compassion: a practice that is paramount in these times when we can’t “fix it.”  Whether we are faced with the suffering of another or presented with a problem over which we have no control, compassion is the most potent and protective tool, a superpower that can help in any situation, no matter how tragic.

Compassion is different than empathy, which is the skill of putting yourself in the shoes of another to imagine, and feel, what they’re feeling. Compassion takes this skill of empathy and wraps it in a layer of caring.  While empathy is a way of feeling, compassion is something you can give.  and like empathy, compassion is not a trait, it is also a skill; a muscle that can be developed.

Compassion has an agency to it – it is something you can do when it feels like nothing can be done.

First, compassion can be conveyed through words. Using words that acknowledge the person’s feelings (empathy), the difficulty of the situation, combined with words of caring; essentially, letting them know they are not alone – is a statement, a gift of compassion.

We also give compassion through our body language.  There is perhaps no more powerful force than our full and unwavering attention. Turn toward the person with an open posture, make eye contact, use gestures that show active listening.  Demonstrate presence, bear witness to their pain without turning away physically or mentally.

My favorite way to practice compassion is completely intangible and invisible, but nonetheless potent. In certain moments when I feel the enormity of a client’s pain, I imagine compassion as rays of light or waves that I generate from inside myself, my empathy and care weaving together.  I imagine it as a palpable force that I’m sending to them from across the room, or through the Zoom camera. Sometimes the silence while this happens is more therapeutic than any words I have.

When you practice compassion, expect it to feel inadequate.  Do it anyway — that’s just the way of it.  Your brain will be tempted to judge anyone in the vicinity, especially yourself.  Judgment is your brain’s favorite escape hatch when you’re feeling discomfort.   Push aside that impulse and bring your mind back to compassion.

Don’t underestimate this skill.  Compassion has more power to heal then you may imagine, and there is abundant evidence that compassionate care positively affects patient outcomes.

If you’re skeptical, or if you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this,” I urge you to watch Dr. Stephen Trzeciak’s Ted Talk, How 40 Seconds of Compassion Could Save a Life.  He tells his own compelling story and weaves in the research about compassion and patient outcomes.

He also points to a finding near and dear to my heart – about the givers I mentioned at the start of this post.  There is growing evidence that the practice of compassion helps protect caregivers against burnout.  Compassion’s healing properties travel both ways – to the receiver and back to the giver.

Wherever you give – as a healthcare provider, a leader, a parent, or as a fellow traveler: compassion is truly a superpower.


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How Burnout Hijacks Your Identity

How Burnout Hijacks Your Identity

Burnout takes its toll in so many ways, and perhaps the most insidious is the way it can hijack your identity.

So often, when my clients articulate their experience of the stressors in their work, they jump from describing what’s happening in the environment directly to a judgment of themselves.


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I’ll show you how burnout happens, how to prevent it, and how to unwind from it if you’re feeling the symptoms now.