What is compassion fatigue? Sometimes, when you work to help others out, you might feel just as burnt out as when you work on any regular, physical task. Worry not, though, because just like any other thing in this world, what you’re feeling has an explanation to it. In this episode, Dr. Kevin Sansberry is joined by rehabilitation counselor, Shoshana Marcus, to talk about working with clients who suffer from burnout brought about by the physical, emotional, and psychological impact of helping others. Shoshana shares about her approach to mental wellbeing and how she helps people around the world through YouTube and other similar initiatives. Listen in as Shoshana discusses more about therapeutic-based techniques she uses to help patients relax and deregulate the things they’re going through.
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Discussing Compassion Fatigue And Gaslighting With Shoshana Marcus
This episode is with Shoshana Marcus. Our episode serves as an inspiration for a phenomenon that occurs all too common with individuals who work in the fields of physical or psychological health, where their main priority is to care for and heal others. Unfortunately, many people who work in these industries face challenges that in turn negatively impact their resiliency, sometimes leading to things like compassion fatigue. Shoshana is a rehabilitation counselor whose experience in mental health and crisis counseling is insightful as she discusses her experiences with workplace toxicity. Let’s get to it.
We have Shoshana Marcus. How are you?
I’m good. Thanks.
Sho and I met on Instagram. I enjoyed getting to read about your approach to mental wellbeing and hear about outside of work how you are trying to help people around the world through YouTube and other initiatives like that. I’m happy to hear how we can connect and hear the connection to toxic leadership.
Thank you so much for giving me this opportunity to be on your show.
Before we jump in, tell people a little bit about yourself, who you are, and what you do.
My name is Shoshana, and I’m a rehabilitation counselor. I work with clients who are adults, and they all struggle with addictions as well as other comorbid diagnoses. A lot of them have their jobs and stuff like that. A lot of it is more assisted living. If they are struggling, then I can use some more therapeutic-based techniques to help them relax, deregulate, and everything like that.
What made you go into that field?
It’s a more personal experience. Growing up, I have had a lot of mental health struggles or mental health struggles with friends and stuff like that. I have also seen a lot of injustices in the mental health system. My role was like, “I see this, I don’t like it, so let me work to change it.” That’s why I started in this field. There are also a lot of misconceptions about mental health, especially about specific disorders. I wanted to work to end that stigma, educate people, and see the other aspects of all these misconceptions and myths.
Anybody that has had a little arrogance, people try to label them as like, “That’s a narcissist.” I’m like, “That’s not it. It goes deeper than that.” I enjoyed hearing that misconception piece. When you hear about toxic leadership and that term and see some of the stuff that I talk about on all the social media and stuff, what comes to mind for you when you think about that?
I have been through some toxic workplaces. Specifically, it’s interesting because as someone who is in the helping field and a counselor of some kind, you would think that people in your same field would not engage in gaslighting and manipulative behaviors because we are supposed to be professional. We are not high school students. We have all had our Bachelor’s degrees. We are all adults. Ironically, it’s the opposite because when you are a teenager, you are fresh out of high school or in retail, you can use those same things and bully.
When you have already gotten your Bachelor’s degree, specifically in Psychology, not only can you still do that, but now you have different techniques and know how to get into people’s brains. Your manipulation and gaslighting are almost elevated in skill. The idea when you are in these helping fields is that you have done enough work on yourself to heal and be competent in working with clients and as a relatively stable adult.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. Just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it doesn’t have that negative impact on other people.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen like that, and sometimes it goes the opposite. People are in these types of fields to have these clients as more like targets versus, “I want to help these clients.” That’s a huge problem. I talked about this before but there’s a spectrum in competency versus personal trauma when you are working with clients. On the lowest end are the people who have been through their stuff and haven’t healed and worked on it at all. They almost use it either purposely or not purposely against the clients.
There’s the middle spectrum where you have never been through any trauma. You have lived a perfect life, had perfect parents, and never had any mental health struggles but you do want to help. In some ways, it’s a wonderful thing because if you want to help, then that’s great. If you haven’t been through anything, then that empathy piece may not be there, and you may be more prone to things like toxic positivity and stuff like that. Not knowing is harmful.
Also, clients can sense when you don’t get it, and you are just reading off the textbook. On the highest end are the people who have been through trauma, so they get it but have healed themselves enough to be competent and not let their emotions and triggers get in the way. There’s a spectrum, and a lot of people in this field are not in the highest section. That’s something that I have learned because I didn’t think of that before coming into this field.
What I learned first was the impact of education, particularly in the field of Psychology, and sometimes Sociology or Social Work creates a sophisticated form of gaslighting because they know how to do it. They are more prone to being able to know how to manipulate in a not-so-positive way. I have learned that from people in your field before. That’s validating to know.
Second, here in level of the spectrum of the practitioner looked to me like how much empathy they could have for you if they haven’t been able to go through it themselves or how connected they can feel to the situation if they haven’t gone through it themselves. I don’t think you are saying that just because somebody has not gone through it themselves doesn’t mean they are the worst practitioner or something like that but it does create a different path for them to connect with folks.
It’s all depending on what the client struggles with. A client who may be struggling with depression could benefit from that. There are a lot of clients who prefer that clinical perspective. Clinical to me is a positive thing. It means you are professional, and you know what you are doing. If you are too clinical, then you are not personal. You are more like, “This is what you are going to do. Here are your meds. Have a good day.” More personal is still having that expertise but also being personal, “How are you doing? Do you sleep okay? Tell me about your day.” That’s essential because it helps build rapport or a relationship with the client and the therapist.
There are people who can benefit from that. For people who have been through severe childhood trauma and if you have a therapist that has that, “In this book, it says this, so let me provide this for you,” it’s a little bit more disconnecting, in my opinion. The more severe your trauma, the harder it is to connect with therapists who may not have that intense level of empathy versus ones who don’t. You don’t have to go through every single trauma in life to be a good therapist. That’s not what I’m saying but some people can tell when a therapist doesn’t have the empathy or experience.
To your point, you don’t have to go through everything. If you cannot relate in any way with what I’m feeling about something you went through, how can you connect with me in a way if you are distant? One of the things that I’m thinking about related to the work that you do and how you described it is for those in the helping field, whether it’s nursing, social work, psychology, psychiatry or all that stuff, the environment can be toxic. What are some things you have seen first off as it relates to gaslighting? Give us some examples. Two, what are some tips for folks that are in these fields who are helpers and are there to support other people? What are some tips for them to support themselves?
There are a couple of examples, unfortunately, that I can think of gaslighting. One of those is I had an interaction with one of my coworkers. I was pointing out something. We kept breaking our chairs. It was such a small thing but it does cost money, and it was annoying. When we did break a chair, it would take a week for the new chair to get there, so now people can’t sit anywhere. For me, that’s not great. The way he was sitting on the chair also was breaking the chair altogether.
I was explaining, “If you want to sit like that on a chair, can you choose a different chair to sit on?” I was trying to be respectful, “You have broken 5 chairs in 2 months.” Having said that, we went through back and forth. I was trying to give him a stable mind or like, “This is how it is,” and not pushing him but giving him this opportunity or offering him to do this. I was like, “I’m done.”
I don’t want to have a conversation or argument with a grown man who is twice my age about a chair. It’s dumb. I was like, “It’s fine. You can sit in the chair.” I turned around and he was like, “We can’t even have a conversation?” I turned around again and I was like, “That’s not what happened. We can. It’s just that I don’t feel like it’s getting anywhere. I’m going to stop because it’s going to go on for 50 minutes. We are never going to get anywhere.”
He was like, “Is that how you feel? You can’t take feedback.” At this point, I was upset. Before, I was fine, but now I’m like, “What’s wrong with you?” I looked at him and I was like, “That’s not what’s happening.” He kept talking and saying, “You are not able and strong enough to do this.” I turned around again. I was trying to say something, and he kept interrupting me, so I couldn’t even make two words out. Eventually, he started mimicking me. This man is 50 years old.
People resort to bullying because they want to bring you down and destroy your self-esteem. So, you have to do the exact opposite.
I’m like, “What is going on?” At this point, I’m talking over him because he’s talking over me, and I can’t talk. I kept talking and said, “I’m going to stop this conversation because it’s not getting anywhere. I feel like you are interrupting me. I didn’t say you are.” He was but how you work, you have to say, “I feel blah, blah, blah.” He’s like, “I see how it is. When you said that, you wouldn’t even let me talk.” I was like, “I’m done.” I was on the computer doing notes for a little bit, but then I was like, “I can’t do this.”
I walked into the other room and closed the door. It’s a conjoined office, and I did a med count. I was still doing my work but I was making it, so I was separated from this person. To me, it was toxic and not a healthy environment. I was sitting there being pissed off. I had walked into the room because I was able to do that. Unfortunately, whether it’s different work environments, they are not always able to leave the room. For me, I was.
For people who are not able to leave the room, what I have always done in the past is leave the room mentally. Have this barrier and be in your head and mind not as a childlike, “I’m not listening to you,” but more like, “This is not a healthy environment, so I’m going to be in my healthy environment in my head.” If they talk to you, you can hear them and say, “What’s up?” Creating that space internally that’s safe, peaceful, and not toxic is a break.
There have been situations where I’m in the same room with someone like that but I create these safe walls and boundaries. It’s a little bit of visualization and almost tunnel-minded. Think of way back when they had horses and those little blinders when they were doing horse carriage stuff. It was like that. You can hear everything. If someone asks you a question, you can respond but you are not thinking about that. You have those blinders on and walls up.
For readers who may not be familiar with the term gaslighting, how would you describe what that is?
Gaslighting is when one person makes another person feel crazy or their feelings are invalid. Oftentimes, there are several kinds of gaslighting but a lot of it is making someone feel like their history isn’t accurate or you are overreacting or crazy. They are making a phrase making anthills into molehills. For example, someone may say, “Alex pushed me a bit the other day.” Alex may say, “You are not remembering this right. That’s not what I did. I didn’t push you. You were already falling over. I was trying to catch you, but then I lost my balance, and you fell over.” It’s like memory distortion. Eventually, you begin to think, “That is what happened. You are right. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to do that.”
You discredit their memory and belief system. Eventually, for a lot of people, they end up feeling like, “I’m crazy.” When you believe you are crazy when you are with this person that continues to gaslight you, you stay with that person because you think, “If I’m this crazy, then no one else is going to want me.” You stay with that person, they continue gaslighting, and it becomes toxic. It’s the snowball effect. It gets worse and bigger. There are many types of gaslighting. Some of it is memory distortion. There’s the crazy thing or the invalid feelings.
A lot of people don’t take accountability for their actions clearly. Someone may say, “I feel embarrassed.” Someone would be like, “Why do you feel embarrassed? I did something like ten-times worse.” “I feel so dumb.” They say, “Look at the facts. You did this and that wrong.” It’s validating the negative beliefs and then discrediting everything. Gaslighting can be harmful because it makes you sometimes feel like your feelings aren’t valid, so you stop expressing them and bottle them up, which isn’t healthy either. It’s not only in the moment but also long-term. You may continue to believe that even when you are not with the abuser.
Gaslighting is a form of psychological abuse. I’m glad you used the word abuser just because it’s invisible doesn’t mean it doesn’t have that negative impact on other people. One of the things related to gaslighting that many people say in a workplace is, “I ended up losing self-esteem or self-confidence because this environment has caused a great deal of anxiety, perpetuated only mistakes but never praised me, and made me feel like I’m a bad employee.” These people leave that work environment and feel like, “It wasn’t me this whole time.” What would you say for individuals in the workplace that feel like the workplace environment and people in it are gaslighting them? Similar to your experience, what advice would you give them?
First, look into why. What always helps me is when someone is doing something that’s not pleasing, I always try to think why. It’s not because it’s going to rationalize what they are doing but because it’s helpful for me to know that this isn’t me. This is them. In my situation, I was a good employee. We have Employee of the Month, and I had been voted Employee of the Month twice in five months. This was when this stuff started happening.
For me, it was different. I was getting that self-esteem booster and affirmations that I was doing a good job but I was getting this kind of behavior as well. I don’t know if this was accurate but how I rationalized it is for my sanity, “Was this person jealous of me? He’s trying to bring me down.” I framed it as this jealousy thing. Whenever you are being bullied or gaslighted, it’s not just for fun. There’s a reason behind it.
The reason isn’t rational but there is a reason, whether it’s bullying or you are jealous that someone else has something that you don’t, which is also jealousy. Someone is jealous of something you have, so they want to bring you down. That’s important to remember because their purpose is to make you feel like you have low self-esteem, break it down, and make you feel bad. You have to do the exact opposite. The coping skills that I use may not work in all situations.
Remember that your feelings are valid and your experiences are valid.
For some people, if you do too much, it can be more harmful than helpful. It’s building up your ego when it’s not something that you are doing and not taking accountability for what you may be doing. I do think it can be helpful. That’s what I have done, and it has worked in the past for me. You always have to remember to still stay humble at the same time, so you don’t make it too crazy. The other thing is to always have an escape route or plan because if it gets worse, you can’t stay there forever.
In my situation, I felt like, “This is a one-time thing. It’s fine.” It happened again, “This is a two-time thing. It’s fine.” At three times, “This is a three-time thing.” It kept going on, and eventually, I was like, “I’m done. I had enough.” I did leave the workplace but it took me a good two weeks to leave it. I remember during those two weeks, I dreaded getting up and going to work. I was like, “I don’t want to work today. I want to call in sick.” It was more of a dread than I had felt in a long time.
That’s what I don’t want other people to experience. Instead of saying, “It’s just one time. Let me continue going,” that’s okay because it could be one time but if it’s 2, 3 or 4 times, have your escape route or escape plan, so you can get out and not have to experience that dreaded two-week notice that I did. That’s not a solution at the moment but a solution for you. A lot of people say, “This company has helped me so much. It’s these coworkers that are abusive.” What I always say is, “The company can always have more people.”
As hurtful and almost diminishing sometimes as that can seem, you are replaceable in many workplaces. You are with yourself your whole life. You are not going to stay in that same company, hopefully, for your entire life but you are going to stay with yourself your entire life. I always try to remember that and a company may have helped you so much and brought you through experience, finances, and everything like that. When it comes down to it, you are what you’ve got.
The fact of it is the longer you stay in that situation where you are gaslighted, whether it’s with a person, a company or whatever the source is, some people might start believing what you are hearing and feeling. For us to truly put those blinders on, sometimes it requires us to get out of the environment a little bit to do so.
One of the things that comes up when we talk about gaslighting is the term, “You are too sensitive. You are being dramatic. You are remembering it wrong.” When these comments come up, they are reality manipulation in a way. What do you suggest people do when they hear trigger sentences like that?
Remember that your feelings and experiences are valid. Think about their intention, “Why are they saying and doing this? What is their intention or motive behind it?” The biggest thing I want to say for people who do experience that is that holding things in is not healthy. You need to be able to have a safe place to let your emotions out and express your feelings. What they are doing is trying to make you submissive and not able to share your feelings and thoughts. Whenever you work with couples with healthy relationships, you always say, “Everyone has a right to their feelings and words.”
Listen to their words. Don’t try to invalidate or do any of that. That’s what it is. All of those examples you gave are invalidating your truth. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot I can say because in many situations at that moment, anything you say back to this person is going to hit you in the face. It’s not because of you. It’s because of the other person. It also depends on who this person is. If it’s a friend, then cut them off. If it’s a coworker, have that guard up, so you don’t get hurt. Sometimes what I do is treat my coworkers as if they are like that as clients. I’m not saying that your client is worse.
I’m a professional. I work collaboratively with them but I don’t let their words hurt and offend me. In that way, I take a stance of, “You are my client.” I don’t say that but I take that stance of, “Whatever you say is not going to hurt me because I know you have your own stuff going on. Let’s work together to work this out.” If a friend insulted me like that, I would be offended. I would be like, “What do you mean?” With the clients, it’s the same thing. I work with them more environmentally like, “What’s wrong? Are you having a tough day? Did you not sleep last night? Let’s figure out what’s wrong so you can feel a little better.”
That’s what I do. If it’s a friend, cut them off. If it’s a coworker, have that guard up. If it’s a boss, have that escape route. If it’s your family and you live with your family, let’s say you are fifteen years old, and if the person doing it is your father or mother, be respectful and do the best you can to live through this time where you have to be living with them. When you turn eighteen, do your best to also work on your finances, getting rent, or even living in a basement.
Living in a basement isn’t going to be as luxurious as living in your parents’ home with a stove, all your belongings, and even a pet that you have in your house. At the same time, your mental capacity is going to be so much better. I’m not a materialistic person. I’m more of a sentimental person. I have always found living when I have more mental health sanity in a not great environmental place like in a basement is so much better than being in a full house with much going on at TV, with having less mental sanity.
One of the things that people can take back is that notion of how you reframe relationships in a way where it’s like, “I’m going to reframe coworkers as clients.” It’s not necessary to treat them worse. It’s necessary for you to distance yourself a little bit. To your example of the horse blinders, you put on some blinders a bit so you can focus on whatever the task at hand is because you don’t want to react too emotionally as you would with a friend, especially if it’s not going to work. It’s like with that guy you are talking about. Tell us about some of the work you are doing and how we can reach you.
Holding things in is not healthy. You need to be able to have a safe place to let your emotions out and to express your feelings.
I’m on my Instagram. My Instagram is @MentalHealth.With.Sho. I do have to admit that I don’t post as much on here as I used to but I’m always reachable. If you message me, I can always respond. I will post more than once a week. Hopefully, that will increase a little bit as my daily stuff gets a little bit less intense because I’m doing work, my YouTube channel, internship, and school. I’ve got a lot going on, so Instagram is a little bit more on the back burner.
My YouTube channel is Mental Health with Sho. For my YouTube channel, I post on different types of topics. Sometimes they are actual diagnoses, and sometimes they are not. I will post on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Saturday, it’s more like a blogging-type post. Sometimes it’s reacting or a personal experience that I have been through and sharing how to get through that. On Tuesday and Thursday, I do any type of topic. I have done self-harm, EMDR, social support, anxiety versus panic attacks, Borderline Personality Disorder, and manipulation even.
With that, I will be talking about whatever and also be either drawing or painting during it. You get to see a time-lapse video of a drawing or painting while also learning about whatever type of topic I’m talking about. I’m always open to suggestions. The last video and the video I’m going to do are requested by people. If you ever have a topic in mind, shoot me a comment down below, and I will get to that as soon as I can.
Before we wrap up, what words of wisdom would you want to leave our readers with?
Regarding toxic workplaces, my biggest thing is that make sure that you know where you are at and take care of yourself first. I know it’s so hard when you are in a toxic environment because there’s all this stuff coming at you. At the end of the day, you’ve got you. Always practice that self-care and those positive affirmations. Have sticky notes around your house of positive affirmations and compliments that people have given you or maybe even actual achievements that you have done. If it gets too much, that’s okay. You are not crazy or over-sensitive. Everything you are saying and feeling are valid.
Do work to get yourself out of that situation, take the steps to even quickly leave whatever situation you are in or have a plan to leave. In the example of being a 15 or 16-year-old and not being able to get out of your parents’ house, take steps to make sure that when you are able to leave when you do turn eighteen that you have a plan to be able to. Don’t shop every single day and waste all your money. Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot I can say in regards to the other person because when it comes down to it, you can’t change other people’s behavior. You can only change how you cope with other people’s toxicity.
I appreciate being able to learn from you related to the top of gaslighting, especially as it relates to those who work in environments where there’s a power difference and things like that. I appreciate talking to you, Sho.
Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure. I’m glad I was able to shed some light. I hope that a lot of your readers can learn and try to implement this stuff.
Thank you all for reading.