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When Caring Goes Too Far

By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan

These days many of us find ourselves in caregiving roles. Some are professional caregivers while others care for family members, friends or colleagues. No matter what kind of caregiver we are, it is not uncommon to reach a point at which our own need for care and understanding begins to exceed our ability to offer those things to others.

“Compassion fatigue” arises from the desire to help others in need. It is a combination of burnout and stress caused by the emotional burden of wanting to help someone who is suffering. In this state, we may exhibit physical symptoms such as exhaustion, poor sleep, headaches and nausea. We may also experience irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, indecision and lack of initiative. Most notably, we may begin to feel less able to care because, as a popular saying goes, “You can’t pour from an empty cup.”

Resilience is the ability to adjust successfully to challenges. The more resilient we are, the better able we will be to cope in our caregiving role and head off compassion fatigue. To make us stronger and more emotionally resilient, we need to use our caring instincts to care for ourselves.

A starting place is noticing symptoms of compassion fatigue as they begin to arise. This allows us to deal with them – to give ourselves what we need – before it’s too late. In observing ourselves, we should be curious and non-judgmental, noting any negative self-talk that suggests we shouldn’t be feeling the way we do.

Eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and nurturing our best relationships become all the more important if we suspect we’re heading for compassion fatigue. But taking the time to attend to these things may be hard if we are in the habit of believing other people always come first. Here It may help to think of the instruction we receive before an airplane takes off: If the oxygen mask drops, secure yours before helping someone else with theirs. Caring for ourselves makes us better able to care for others. And this means self-care is not selfish.

We need to look closely at our motivations. Understanding why we are giving will help us assess how much to give, when and how. Some people play helping roles at least in part as a distraction from their own problems or as a way to satisfy a strong need to be needed. In cases like this, it’s fair to ask who is being helped. 

Healthy boundaries are at the heart of good mental health and self-care. This often-overlooked area of health is very important when it comes to compassion fatigue. Boundaries can be compared to property markers, limits defining what is our responsibility and what is not, what we will and will not do. Healthy boundaries build resilience and buffer against compassion fatigue. And like other areas of self-care, creating and maintaining healthy boundaries is not selfish. On the contrary, cleaning up someone else’s side of the street, so to speak, keeps them from meeting their own responsibilities and growing.

A word is in order here about a condition that is often confused with compassion fatigue. “Empathy fatigue” has a vicarious element that is lacking in compassion fatigue. It arises out of feeling another person’s pain so acutely that it feels like our own because we are especially close to that person or because their situation triggers our own wounds. Like compassion fatigue, empathy fatigue can render us less able to offer support. In this case, though, it is important to adjust our boundaries so that we are feeling for another person rather than as that person.

As compassionate as we are toward other people, we are not always compassionate toward ourselves. Self-compassion means showing ourselves the same kindness we would show someone we care about. We should give ourselves the same soothing messages we would give this person if they were suffering as we are.

Each of us is different in what brings us comfort and joy – what fills our cup. For one person, it may be walking in nature, for another indulging in a favorite hobby, playing an instrument or a sport, meditating, going to church, or laughing with a special friend. Whatever it is, do it. I’m not talking about giving ourselves a crutch so we can hobble along for a little longer. I’m talking about giving ourselves all the nourishment we need to do the caring work we want to do for as long as we want to do it.

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises.  It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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3 months ago

Great article.

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