Avoid compassion fatigue and the Tantalus Complex

For years, dentists were at the top of the list. Now, some say veterinarians have climbed and clawed their way upwards to a place no one wants to go. My question is where on this horrible ranking do other high-achieving professions fall? Who is in third, fourth or fifth place? Where are bankers, startups, mom & pops, educators, Realtors, health-care professionals and technology firms? How close are they to the ones who care for our pets and our teeth?

Compassion fatigue describes the veterinarian (and human medicine professional) who stomachs the rigors of veterinary or medical school and then enters the profession to save lives. They connect with animals; they are called to heal people; their passion runs deep. Others took an entrepreneurial route leashed to an idea or product that just might “save the world.” These people care — sometimes too much or for too long. Sometimes their compassion runs in high gear with little fuel or maintenance as they slowly exhaust themselves. At the tragic extreme, their reason for living is chewed raw as their emotion runs dry. Another compassion fatigue victim is added to the list.

Like a ping-pong level of stress, compassion fatigue needs an outlet and a reprieve. When we manage our stress we live long enough to perhaps make our mark on the world. When we maintain a good flow of compassion, we care for ourselves while moderating our empathy and concern so there is some left over down the road. It sounds harsh, even brutal, but so is being on that list.

Classical mythology recounts the story of King Tantalus who, having offended the gods, is condemned to Hades for eternity.  Above the king’s head are trees laden with ripe fruit.  Each time he raises an arm to harvest a meal; a gust of wind blows the branch just out of reach.  The story continues as the king stands up to his chin in water, and each time he bends to quench his thirst, the water recedes — thus, we get the term “tantalizing.”

This classical mythology story is the core of what’s called the Tantalus Complex. This complex describes puzzling human behavior that picks a goal, directs energy toward the goal, but unconsciously does things that take the person away from the goal. It’s described as moving toward and away at the same time.

Tantalus Complex examples:

• The veterinarian works to help animals but gives away so many free services that the practice struggles.

• The human physician tirelessly works evenings and weekends to heal patients but becomes ill herself due to the overwork.

• The startup founder rehearses all night to prepare a venture-capital pitch but can’t answer obvious questions due to fatigue.

• The parent works 60-hour weeks to provide for a growing family but loses touch with the family because he or she is never home.

Compassion fatigue is a perfect example of the Tantalus Complex — moving toward and away at the same time.

Dentists and veterinarians have unfortunately been high on the list of those who harm themselves. Other professions suffer the heartbreak and tragedy of brilliant missions and passions cut short. Too many of us hear the story of the billionaire who works non-stop to put more money in the bank. We then interpret a cause-and-effect relationship between unhealthy lifestyles and success. It’s a false comparison.

In the big picture, healthy professionals are the ones who last the longest and reach the highest pinnacles. It’s sad when magazines or news programs idolize the flash-in-the-pan overnight success. The real heroes build something that lasts and sustains itself. I call them the “steady-ons.”

Reducing compassion fatigue might include reading about King Tantalus but not mimicking him. When we reach for fruit, we pick it, and when we bend to drink, the water will be cool and refreshing. The best way for passion to last is for the human being to survive.

Rick Griggs is the inventor of the rolestorming creativity tool and founder of the Quid Novi Innovation conference. Reach him at 970-690-7327.

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