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Stages of Helping Fatigue: Cynicism and Callousness

Posted on March 24, 2017

Why do so many of our organizations and systems seem so rigid, and so unable to embody the empathy and compassion that we know is so important for our clients? Why are so many of the helpers I talk to feeling extremely fed up with their systems and organizations? My simple answer is the third stage of helping fatigue: cynicism and callousness.

Cynicism and callousness is a natural reaction to continuous experiences of exhaustion, shame, and guilt. If we don’t address the causes behind our progression from stage 1 to stage 2, we must do something to cope and be able to continue to show up to work every day. The human response to exhaustion, shame, and guilt is to withdraw our empathy and compassion, and to stop connecting emotionally to the work and to our clients’ struggles.

As we withdraw empathetically, our sympathy and caring are replaced by a cynical view of the work, our clients, and our co-workers. We start to disrespect clients by putting them down behind their back and acting passive-aggressively. It can become difficult to find empathy and understanding behind the struggles of our clients – instead, they often become an inconvenience and annoyance. The mix of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, secondary trauma, and burnout triggers a psychological flight response. While we continue to be physically present with clients, we protect ourselves emotionally by not spending the time or energy to connect in the deep ways necessary to support healing and change.

This response also impacts our relationships with co-workers. We spend more time gossiping about our co-workers and complaining about our supervisors and others in the organization. Instead of realizing how traumatized and burned out we are, we start to put down others and act passive-aggressively in meetings, instead of honestly and respectfully confronting issues.

A sense of self-importance can also develop. “No one here works longer and harder than I do.” “These millennials are so freak’n entitled.” “You think it is bad now; you should have been around in the Reagan years!” Cynical people have a need to make sure everyone sees their burdens, and how strong they are for carrying these burdens every day.

I describe callousness as, “Someone’s heart becoming a concrete monument to who they once were.” I believe that most everyone enters the helping professions for altruistic reasons. Years of trauma exposure and stress destroys this initial passion and compassion.

Those who realize that they are a shadow of their former selves often experience their lack of self-confidence as persecution. Even those working with highly traumatized populations – populations experiencing homelessness, racism, and other hardships – see their problems as stronger than even their clients’. This experience often results in the person minimizing both the pain and suffering of their clients and the challenges facing their co-workers.

Often, clients become less than human, and are seen to have little value. Resentments can arise – why do clients get all these resources and the staff get so little thanks or pay in return? At this point, everything in life, both personally and professionally, ends up being viewed through the helper’s callousness and cynicism.

Just a few years ago, I used to say that, “Those in stage 3 do not hang around long, as their co-workers, supervisors, and clients can’t stand to be around them.” If you heard me ever say these words, I apologize, because I was extremely mistaken. As I have moved and begun working with larger systems and organizations, I now realize that not only do stage 3 folks stay in the field, they too often get promoted into powerful leadership positions.

I started realizing this when the majority of the audiences attending my leadership workshops at conferences were not actually supervisors, but were often front-line staff, trying to figure out whether they were crazy, or whether their leaders were as ineffective and abusive as their staff was experiencing them. I have spent hours talking to direct care staff about the dysfunctional and abusive behaviors of their supervisors and leaders. Too often, when I work with leaders, I see this callousness and cynicism come out in discussions about their staff or clients.

To be clear, there are so MANY amazing people in their fields, but I also see the powerful negative impact of those who progress to this stage. I share this reality because it has shown me how critical it is to address burnout and trauma in stage 1 and stage 2, before someone progresses to stage 3. Once you become cynical and callous, and that becomes people’s experience of you, it’s hard to recover, without changing organizations and positions. Individuals in this stage cause real hurt to others, and harm clients. Part of this harm comes from damage done through communication, and part of it comes from the missed opportunities to help someone seeking services and trying to find hope.

I want to open the comments up to people’s experiences. Do you see as much cynicism and callousness as I do? If so, what impact do you see it having on systems and quality of care?

12 responses to “Stages of Helping Fatigue: Cynicism and Callousness”

  1. Joanne Guarino says:

    I was once homeless for numerous years. I am wondering if it’s more difficult to work with people that are going through what I did. I want people to get out of the rut that they are in with statements like well if I got out you can because I was worst than you. I am thinking that’s not working. It’s ironic that you are writing about this today because I have been asking for help with this. Everything you mentioned today I personally have thought or believed. Thank you Matt I needed this today!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks for sharing my friend. I think so many of us are struggling with this right now. I’m so glad you are asking for help! Hold tight to your passion!

  2. Joanne Guarino says:

    I was once homeless for numerous years. I am wondering if it’s more difficult to work with people that are going through what I did. I want people to get out of the rut that they are in with statements like well if I got out you can because I was worst than you. I am thinking that’s not working. It’s ironic that you are writing about this today because I have been asking for help with this. Everything you mentioned today I personally have thought or believed. Thank you Matt I needed this today!

    • Matt Bennett says:

      Thanks for sharing my friend. I think so many of us are struggling with this right now. I’m so glad you are asking for help! Hold tight to your passion!

  3. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    These negative emotions and behaviors cause an institution to work against its own mission; and individuals come to contradict their own early ambitions for service. Being helpful and giving evolves to aggression. These compound the bad experiences of the clients. In New York, to remain active and positive in my personal situation, I volunteer with, among other organizations, the Safety Net Activists, a group at the Urban Justice Center, comprised of persons on Public Assistance who work to improve the services in the City agency that administers it. We find that the experience of re-traumatization occurs regularly. Cynicism and callousness lead to insolence, which is an invitation to stress and violence. Courtesy is an antidote, but that very salve is waning in society. Consideration for others is increasingly fleeting. Courtesy is the proberbial oil in the car that doesn’t get replenished. Our society is smoking.

  4. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    These negative emotions and behaviors cause an institution to work against its own mission; and individuals come to contradict their own early ambitions for service. Being helpful and giving evolves to aggression. These compound the bad experiences of the clients. In New York, to remain active and positive in my personal situation, I volunteer with, among other organizations, the Safety Net Activists, a group at the Urban Justice Center, comprised of persons on Public Assistance who work to improve the services in the City agency that administers it. We find that the experience of re-traumatization occurs regularly. Cynicism and callousness lead to insolence, which is an invitation to stress and violence. Courtesy is an antidote, but that very salve is waning in society. Consideration for others is increasingly fleeting. Courtesy is the proberbial oil in the car that doesn’t get replenished. Our society is smoking.

  5. Brenda Riley says:

    You couldn’t have described the work that we do better. This helps me when I am ready to leave home I have a little talk with self and the man upstairs… I always ask him for the same things, lead me to the table, may I have my five senses alert… to open my heart and let his thinking be mine .. to be used through my vessel.. speak in the lanuage they understand… have the eyes and ears to see and hear and the final to touch the lives of those that are in need as well as those that can help. Keep fighting : The harvest is plenteous, but labourers are few.

  6. Brenda Riley says:

    You couldn’t have described the work that we do better. This helps me when I am ready to leave home I have a little talk with self and the man upstairs… I always ask him for the same things, lead me to the table, may I have my five senses alert… to open my heart and let his thinking be mine .. to be used through my vessel.. speak in the lanuage they understand… have the eyes and ears to see and hear and the final to touch the lives of those that are in need as well as those that can help. Keep fighting : The harvest is plenteous, but labourers are few.

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