The Doula Empath

Posted on: April 19, 2018 | Doula Inspiration, Doula Self Care

As doulas, many of us are drawn to this work to give compassionate, supportive and loving care to our clients. We are givers. For most of us, nurturing touch and supportive words are second nature. One might call us a doula empath.

Many of us are deeply empathetic. For me, this is the most challenging aspect of my role as a doula. Not the physical, hands on support that leaves my muscles sore for days. Not the unexpected hours and lack of sleep.

Empathy leads my eye to the sway of my client’s hips, that slight lift of their foot or bend of their knee that tells me their back is hurting, just there. Empathy leads my hands to the spot that results in their back melting into my hands. The shoulders drop. They whisper, “There.”

I am a doula empath.

Empathy also brings my eye to the furrow of my client’s brow. The arch of their lips as they fall into a frown. I wait for the contraction to end and I ask, “Can you tell me what you were thinking just now?” They open their eyes, arch a brow and I see the sadness wash across their eyes. “My mother. I wish she was here.”

I am a doula empath.

That said, empathy was my kryptonite.

In that moment my heart breaks. I can’t make it better. I can’t change the circumstance. I’m powerless to ease this pain.

I am a doula empath…

That’s where I struggle most.

Individuals with empathetic personalities can so easily take on the emotions of others. We can sense when something is wrong. We sense when someone is upset. We find ourselves not knowing what to do with those emotions when there is no appropriate outlet.

We are doula empaths.

As doulas this can present such a challenge. Especially when we feel those emotions may be directed towards us. Some trainings lead doulas to believe that they should or could have ‘prevented’ what the client experienced and that can destroy a doula empath leading them to feelings of sadness, frustration or guilt. Doula empaths, it’s NOT your fault!

One of the most valuable resources that we have as doulas for processing these emotions is the support of each other. At the same time, we must be careful about who we choose to process these feelings with.

Choosing someone who has an understanding of the situation who is grounded in their own emotions is key.

While we need someone to hear us and to validate our feelings, what we do not need is someone to sit down in the upset and negative emotions with us. It’s vital to choose a person who can move us through the negative emotions and help us free ourselves of them in the process.

If we retain these negative emotions or frustrations it will impair our ability to support the next client. It will also increase our risk of burnout.

When I encounter these situations I’ve found that there are a few steps that I find most beneficial for self-care and emotional recovery.

  • First I allow myself a good 24 hours to process the emotions. While I would love to maintain my tough exterior, there are times that I’ve cried all the way home from a birth.
  • Next I have a good meal and some sleep. Sometimes this is enough. But in the early days of my career I needed more.

“Phone-a-doula” was often my lifeline in those early years. I quickly found that I needed doulas who were grounded. Grounded in their career and grounded in their own emotions. Someone who could hear the story I had to share, validate my feelings and then help me reframe.

When I reached out to someone who shared my sense of injustice or rage at the situation, I couldn’t move on. They fanned my flames in a sense. That didn’t benefit me, or my clients in the long run.

I needed a sounding board that validated my emotions and helped me pull back and see the bigger picture. This allowed me to free myself from the emotions I’d brought home from the birth and to re-center myself emotionally for the next client.

Here at ProDoula there are a wealth of doulas available to reach out to. The home team, the training and development team are all ready, willing and able to help our membership process these difficult situations.

Doula empath, you are not alone my sweet colleague.

Angela Horn, Owner, Tucson Doulas