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My Top Tip for Avoiding Compassion Fatigue as a Caregiver

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What’s Compassion Fatigue?

One useful definition of “compassion fatigue” is: a condition of emotional and physical exhaustion making it hard to care, usually because of initially caring too much for too long while neglecting one’s own personal needs.

• What is PTSD?

The Mighty’s Caregiving Toolkit

Compassion fatigue can also be referred to as secondary traumatic stress. Yeah, you might have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Not because you held your dying comrade, although you might have. Not necessarily because of abuse or neglect or being scared to death or injured. It might simply be from loving someone else who’s experienced something traumatic. You may be dreading your next conversation, walking on eggshells every day, or wondering what shoe will drop next. Some people are experiencing compassion fatigue and PTSD because of their fears during 2020. The good news is there’s help for it. And it’s not what you think.

Why Do You Care Too Much?

You don’t care too much. You care just the right amount. How you focus your benevolence might be something we can tweak a bit. It usually only takes a shift in thinking to make a huge dent in any problem, and compassion fatigue is one of those issues.

What happens when someone you know is suffering? Do you:

  • Distance yourself? It’s OK if you do. No judgment. We’re all unique.
  • Hide from the person?
  • Deny it could possibly be that bad?
  • Escape the relationship altogether?
  • Try to get them to see the positive side of things?
  • Remind them of all they’re thankful for?
  • Tell them to get a grip?
  • Invite them to shape up or ship out?

You might do any of those.

A couple of them even sound like they might be helpful, but when someone is miserable, like with a broken leg, you won’t be holding their hand on the ground with them, asking them to count their blessings or recite some nice affirmations.
You’ll be handing them tissues, crying with them, trying to help and get additional help, and trying to fix it. Make it better. Get rid of the pain.

This response is natural. You have compassion and a desire for human connection, so you pour love into the wound and try to make it better. Many times, this approach works wonders. During my husband’s illness, especially while raising our children, our family, friends, neighbors and church members reached out in love, continually supporting and helping us.

I don’t know what we would have done without them.

But I don’t think any of them experienced compassion fatigue. Sacrifice, yes! I know many of them reached out at personal expense. I’m eternally grateful for them.

But we received help reluctantly and in small bunches. I didn’t let people prolong their outreach. I felt guilt and shame receiving so many gifts—of time, conversations, rides, child care, food, gasoline and even money.

I thought we received too much and gave too little. I had my pride, and I didn’t want anyone to resent caring for us. I tried to manage their emotions—deciding what they should and shouldn’t do to maintain a safe friendship. I thought I was doing the right thing, and I was. I was doing the best I could with what I knew at the time, and it felt right.

I was also caring for my husband with schizophrenia and physical disability and raising three little boys. Guess who got compassion fatigue? Trying to protect all the kind helpers and take care of my family while working full-time just about did me in.

It’s not because I was tired of being nice. It’s because I forgot to take care of me.

The Crash and Burn

After seriously contemplating suicide and being rescued by my 5-year-old son, I had a decision to make. I could:

  • keep pushing people away,
  • continue ignoring my pain,
  • persist in handling everything, and
  • hang onto soothing my pride.

Or I could:

  • go to the doctor,
  • get more rest (and a happy pill),
  • ship our boys to my mom’s for a month, and
  • set new boundaries for my husband and me.

I did the latter. I also made time to eat more responsibly, go to the gym and walk my dog every day. I started reading for pleasure, leaving the dishes overnight and going to the symphony.

Things were pretty good. Until they weren’t. I was doing things for myself and combatting compassion fatigue by taking care of my physical needs (and some emotional ones). But I missed the most critical part of compassion.

The one where I embrace all the emotions, allow myself to notice my thoughts, the “good” ones and the “bad” ones (like the ones where I wished my husband would die already and put us all out of his misery).

Yes, I totally just said that. I had to see that thought and learn not to judge myself. To realize that, while it horrified me to see it, I had the power to entertain the thought or to let it float by.

It wasn’t until years later that I learned these tools of processing emotion and allowing thoughts without self-criticism.

Essential self-care is compassion for you—for your 6-year-old self who had no idea what life would hold, and for your 90-year-old self who will thank you for listening to your body and mind whisper sweet words of love and confirmation.

You’re doing great!

Too many of us think we should have known this or done that or avoided such and such mistakes. But that’s hogwash—after the hog got out of the tub.

You’re doing the best you can.

It’s OK to care and be nice. It’s OK to walk away if you need to. Pat yourself on half of your back if you only got done part of what you expected of yourself today.

When compassion starts with you, not your loved ones, in the end, you serve them better and longer than if you crash and burn.

Originally published: February 12, 2021
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