This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday...
Occasionally I have clients stop mid-sentence, look at me with a slightly concerned manner and ask, “How do you listen to this all day?” It’s a fair question, and one I always try to answer honestly.
Burnout, or more specifically “compassion fatigue” is a real professional concern, sort of like the “RSI” of the caring professions. Psychotherapists in particular are required to undergo their own therapy as part of training. All talk therapy professionals are also required to attend “supervision” too, essentially a session of their own once a week, or fortnight, with a senior colleague to discuss and support their work.
But what happens when we care too much?
Caring is a scarce resource and it’s not just professionals who can burn out. Many people find themselves in relationships, friendships, with elderly parents, or in the work place, feeling that their well of compassion has run dry.
At the more extreme end, vicarious traumatization is a recognised response to working with traumatised people, where just the experience of talking with highly distressed, traumatised people can leave people experiencing symptoms of trauma themselves.
Empathy makes the experience contagious.
Compassion fatigue is less obvious, and at least as much about a lack of care for yourself, as it is too much caring for others. Symptoms of compassion fatigue can include:
•Feeling mentally, physically and/ or emotionally exhausted
•Reduced sense of accomplishment in work or caring tasks
•Reduced interaction with others
•Less meaning in, or feeling cynical about, work or the caring relationship
•A feeling of disconnection from emotions
Relationships naturally operate on give and take. So relationships being a one-way street are not the natural state of things. Whether it’s a job, like a health profession, or circumstances – like finding oneself caring for an ill or incapacitated family member – it’s vital to keep trying to re-balance the scales.
Personally I’ve never been much of a fan of bubble baths and scented candles, but I appreciate that everyone has different ways of caring for themselves. Therapists call it self-care, in another example of giving the obvious a label.
Ultimately it’s about being selfish, but that idea can be a hard sell to people naturally inclined to care for others. And even thought it’s a tired cliché (and easy to miss these days in Air New Zealand’s over the top safety videos) it’s true you have to put your own oxygen mask on before you help others.
The thing about being selfish, so you can help others, is only you know what you need to refill your tank. And only you can give yourself permission to do it.
Because truly caring means being selfless AND selfish. You can’t have one without the other.
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