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How Empathy Can Be a Gateway to Caregiver Burnout

How compassion and appreciation can help you combat caregiver burnout

As caregivers do what caregivers do, a lexicon of words get bantered about with the intention of invoking a perpetual ease that will flutter down on the caregiving situation that makes everything a little bit easier and lessens the suffering. These are words like: empathy, compassion, appreciation, and gratitude. They are sprinkled in conversations, articles, and workshops as indispensable offerings, and if we let ourselves be guided by them, all will be better and burnout will, well, burnout and go away. The key is to understand how to prevent caregiver burnout and what steps are necessary to take along the journey. Oddly enough, understanding the psychological underpinnings and nuanced qualities of these words does reduce and potentially eradicate burnout but consciously being aware of how to present and balance these qualities makes all the difference.

Some of us are called to become professional or volunteer caregivers. Others are propelled into the caregiver role because of love; the need of a partner, parent, family member, or friend requires our attention and we show up to do what is needed. This group is increasing every day, it is a diverse army of individuals that share in what can be an all too consuming endeavor. Being a caregiver calls on the best in us. It is a human impulse that is vitally engaging and often unfolds and deepens the sweetness of our human story. Yet, we falter, we have a difficult time. We become overwhelmed and sacrifice our own well being for the sake of the needs of our loved one. We experience emotions such as caregiver burnout, unease, stress, exhaustion. We think it is simply the cost of caregiving, and hope that it will end. The numbers are staggering. Sixty percent of professional caregivers will experience some degree of burnout during their career. For relatives and friends being caregivers, the numbers are not clear, but chances are, that the percentage of those who experience some degree of burnout is even higher.

There are many techniques and ways to approach burnout, how to renew one’s relationship to their caregiving and how to avoid burnout in the first place. But it has become clear that in over forty years of research it is an issue that each caregiver will have to in many ways navigate on their own. Which brings up the enormous subject of self care. How can we take care of ourselves and appropriately alleviate the pressures that cause us to shut down and retreat in the midst of caring for someone who needs our help?

Empathy and Compassion

Many caregivers fall into the trap of empathizing too much with their loved ones. As they witness the difficulties and pains of their loved one, they identify with it so strongly that they suffer physically as well.

Aside from there being some benefits to empathizing with regard to self-esteem and purpose in life there are also higher rates of systemic inflammation for many caregivers. There can be a divergence of the effectiveness of empathy. It comes down to the understanding that an ill loved one does not want you to feel what they are feeling or experiencing; they want your care and help. The loved one suffering does not need our empathy, they need our compassion. Our ability to witness, help, and partner with them to meet their needs. When we engage in bringing a sense of compassion forward there is a bit more objectivity and ability to be with the situation in its entirety.

Appreciation and Caregiving         

This might be one of the earliest western considerations of the benefit of appreciation. Giving thanks is personal, social, and can be transcendental. We know that it is polite to thank someone who has helped us in some way. We know that we feel a bit more alive and recognized when we are thanked by someone for something we have done. We know that we are a little more peaceful when we give thanks for our lives with our heart, body, and mind. Everything is a bit brighter. What we recognize in ourselves and in the other when we say thank you is found in appreciation. According to a paper published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Health Psychology, when a partner is caring for an ill spouse, if their experience is one of being helpful and their spouse is buoyed by the support and care that they have received, the resulting air of appreciation nurtures and eases the difficulties that the caregiver encounters.

The subject of gratitude and appreciation and how it serves us as caregivers is deep, wide, and full of options, but for now let’s just consider appreciation. However, let’s not confuse appreciation with gratitude. Much has been written about the grace that gratitude brings to life. Gratitude expresses a thankful attitude toward a certain person, thing, or experience in your life. You can also feel gratitude about some way in which you have grown or something you have done to enrich your life.

Appreciation, while most definitely in the same ballpark, involves recognizing the qualities of someone (yourself included) or something. It doesn’t have to rely on feeling good about, or happy about anything. You don’t have be grateful that you are able to tend to your partner of 35 years who is dying of cancer. But you can appreciate the entire catastrophe, and be present to the fact that your partner is ill, needs your help and understanding, and you can step back and recognized with a deep breath, “gee, this is really hard.” You can sit and take in the situation and appreciate that you are there, doing the very best you can and your partner is also right there doing the best that they can. They love that you are there. They hate that you are having to care for them under these circumstances. It is hard. You can be present to this situation in its entirety. Or consider this, imagine yourself flying a thousand feet in the air, having a complete overview of everything that is occurring, and how very challenging it is for you, the caregiver. Really see the situation, your personal experience, your partner’s, and everything that you both are dealing with—the easy stuff and the difficult. Look at it all, recognize it, acknowledge it, appreciate everything that you are bringing to your caregiving. With an appreciation comes space, a clean full in breath of clarity, that often illuminates the next step on the path of your caregiving. While this is simple, it may not be easy to initially grasp in a way that gives comfort. But keep noticing and trying.

Additionally, there are the enormous jolts of well-being that emerge when you can see that your partner is benefitting from your care, when they can acknowledge your help or are happy because of something that you have done for them.

In my experience, it has come down to a willingness to engage in the difference between reacting and relating. When I react in a difficult situation, I shut down, want to go away and avoid what is occurring. I am clearly on the path of caregiver burnout. When I choose to relate to the situation, I take some time with myself, this could be five minutes of breathing while gaining some perspective on what is difficult in the moment. I may not be able to fix it, I may not have a solution, but I am able to not get so caught up in my own reaction. This benefits not only me but the situation.

This sometimes is the best way for us to meet the needs of our loved one. Our appreciation of the poignancy of the situation, our own open hearted approach and that sense of gratitude we have for being able to provide care, is often our way through to relating to any situation while remaining helpful and energized to meet this time of caregiving. Having an appreciation for our ability to recognize when we need to take stock, makes us more available to receive the gratitude and appreciation of others and to fully care for our loved ones.

Sources:

  1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/being-empathetic-is-good-but-it-can-hurt-your-health/2017/09/22/b25b83ca-6cd0-11e7-96ab-5f38140b38cc_story.html?utm_term=.173558de6769
  2. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/08/170828105407.htm
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26348495