For the past 17 years I have worked and trained in international conflict situations, with workshop participants from South Africa, Bosnia, Serbia, Syria, Palestine, Israel, the Philippines, and Nepal, among other countries. So I am no stranger to chronic, seemingly intractable conflicts and the deep wounds and vulnerabilities they often produce, or to the strident, angry rhetoric that is often expressed in conflict resolution trainings. It gets hot in the room. That’s a given, and I have sometimes found it difficult to return from these foreign venues, to reintegrate into my domestic practice and life.
But nothing prepared me for what I experienced after teaching for seven weeks in Israel and Palestine during the summer of 2006, when I lived in a militarized zone during the active shooting war between Lebanon and Israel.
On the surface, I was teaching a graduate course in Negotiation, Mediation, and Conflict Management to 125 Israelis and Palestinians. I was also training Israeli, Arab, Druze, and Christian community mediators.
Beneath the surface, I was having long conversations with my Haifa students who were sleeping in bomb shelters, I was living in an area that was constantly threatened with Katyusha rockets, I was visiting impromptu memorials where Israeli soldiers had been killed only days before, and I was witnessing the scarred earth left by wildfires incited by rocket attacks across the border.
When I came home I found myself withdrawing (my wife called it “distancing”). My friends told me my voice sounded hollow, unconnected to my feelings. I found myself minimizing the summer’s events (“It wasn’t so bad. Life goes on”), just so I could survive the onslaught to my system. I experienced a decrease in compassion for my “regular” parties (“They don’t know what REAL conflict is like!”). I had violent dreams, and, for the first time in seven years working in the Middle East, I had a sense of hopelessness, believing that nothing will change, that nothing can help.
Through my own research, I came to understand that I was experiencing “Compassion Fatigue,” or what the medical profession calls Secondary Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. This phenomenon, first officially diagnosed in 1995 (and studied much more intensively after 9/11), is a complex of symptoms resulting from working closely with and showing compassion for people whose suffering is ongoing and unresolvable. It can affect many life areas: cognitive, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, personal relationships, physical/somatic, and work performance. People’s symptoms can be very diverse. They can be constant, come and go, or occur in clusters.
Interestingly, Compassion Fatigue has been studied in therapists, physicians, first responders, family caregivers, animal rescue workers and chaplains who work with veterans. To date, however, no one has studied, or even hypothesized, that Compassion Fatigue may deeply affect mediators. Why not?
As I began my exploration of this topic, I thought about (and encourage readers to think about) how we are exposed to traumatic stories told by parties in mediation on a regular basis. Mediations as commonplace as divorce can trigger deep emotional wounds in the parties, and, if we’ve created a safe-enough environment, parties aren’t shy about pouring out their hearts. Eviction cases, property issues, victim-offender mediations, labor-management situations and even commercial disputes – all of these may provoke traumatic experiences for the parties. If we’re doing our job and remaining “present,” we mediators often feel deep feelings of empathy and sorrow for the parties’ suffering.
In workshops at NE-ACR last spring and ACR this fall, I’ve been asking mediators what they experience when they are exposed day after day, mediation after mediation, to the trauma that parties experience. Most agree that it’s not wrong to feel compassion, as long as they maintain sufficient detachment to do their work.
But there’s the cutting edge. How can we mediators take care of ourselves, so that we don’t retreat into cynicism or despair, despite the traumatic words we hear each day? Here are some of the things mediators do that they find helpful: writing about the experience (as I am doing here), exercising, using humor in appropriate ways, getting sufficient rest, talking with their significant other or peers about the case (while of course preserving confidentiality), or turning to prayer or other spiritual practice.
Most of all, it’s important to realize that if you find yourself experiencing Mediator Fatigue, you’re not crazy. If your reaction feels too strong to handle, seek professional help. Talk to your loved ones and your friends.