Do you ever struggle with making time for self-care despite signs of burnout? Are you so busy caring for others that you either forget to practice self-care or find yourself putting it off indefinitely? You are not alone.

In my coaching practice, I work with many women who are juggling their role as a parent (or other sort of caregiver) with myriad other life priorities, such as manifesting a creative professional project, running a business, and making healthy choices around eating and exercise.

The question that always comes up around self-care for people who have a tendency to put others first is How? How do I make a decision I can feel good about when my own needs and the needs of others are on the scale? Where do I find a balance that feels right for me and the people I care about?

Let’s first take a quick look at what happens when people don’t make this tough decision.

What Happens When We Care “Too Much”

There has been a good deal of research on topics such as compassion fatigue and burnout in people who serve as caregivers, either professionally or in their personal lives. Typically the people studied care for those who have suffered trauma and/or are living with chronic illness, and thus many of the definitions reflect this.

What strikes me, however, is that there is – as in so many areas of life – a spectrum along which we all exist at various points in our lives. While the concepts of compassion fatigue and burnout certainly apply strongly to people who work in helping professions such as social work, healthcare, and education, they also have relevance to people who are “simply” parenting children or caring for friends and family.

If we look at compassion fatigue as “the overall experience of emotional and physical fatigue that social service professionals experience due to chronic use of empathy when treating patients who are suffering in some way”, we find that the core of it is emotional and physical fatigue that occurs as a result of the chronic use of empathy when serving others.

The following are among the many symptoms of compassion fatigue and burnout found among helping professionals. Many of these will likely ring true for parents and other everyday caregivers facing less extreme situations:

  • Emotional fatigue and exhaustion
  • Increased anxiety, anger and/or irritability; reduced tolerance for “petty” problems
  • Feelings of shame about not being warm, caring, and compassionate “enough”
  • Diminished feelings of personal accomplishment
  • Increased disillusionment, cynicism and/or self-criticism
  • Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and/or powerlessness
  • Numbness, depression and/or isolation
  • And an eloquent term called “Soul Erosion…

What parent hasn’t felt so frazzled and out of patience that they barked harshly at their child(ren) and instantly felt ashamed? What person whose parent’s or in-law’s life circumstances required moving in together and all the adjustments this entails hasn’t felt fatigue or irritation at this increased emotional workload or cynicism about the factors that led there? All of it, of course, accompanied by self-criticism for not doing “more” (i.e., fixing everyone’s problems) or being “more” (e.g., compassionate, generous, understanding).

Let’s start by acknowledging that these feelings and reactions are normal. They’re human and understandable and normal. That said, let’s look at the factors that go into why and how this happens.

A Caring Imbalance

If we think of our reserves of empathy and compassion as being contained in a vessel, like water, we can think of our caring for others as the spigot. It takes energy to care. That energy is the “water” inside the vessel. If we are not simultaneously filling up the container when the tap is turned on, it will eventually run dry. We will simply not have the energy to sustain the caring, compassion, and empathy we wish to feel and express.

Why does this happen?

In her article What I Wish I Had Known: Burnout and Self-Care in Our Social Work Profession, SaraKay Smullens notes that while social workers “may strive for a relationship with our clients that is collaborative, our goal is not a relationship that is reciprocal….In our work, although we are surrounded by people all day long, there is not a balanced give and take. Concentration is on clients, not ourselves. In the truest sense, we are alone—we are the givers, and our fulfillment comes from seeing the growth, hope, and new direction in those with whom we are privileged to work.”

Sound familiar? Any parent or everyday caregiver will recognize the essential sentiments underlying this observation.

When a relationship contains an imbalance – whether in power, wherewithal, or capability – the person on the giving end of the scale will naturally become depleted…if they do not find ways to refill their reserves of empathy and compassion. Note that this does not mean it has to be refilled by the person directly on the other end of an energy imbalance.

Righting the Scales

Among the most common reactions that compassionate people have when faced with the idea that a relationship might not be completely reciprocal is to jump to the defense of the other person, finding valid reasons to justify this imbalance – often asserting that the satisfaction they take in caregiving “should” be enough to sustain them (note the double-edged sword of self-recrimination inherent here) – or explaining that the other person gives (or gave) back in different ways, for example the love of a child or the debt owed a parent who “took care of me all those years.”

This may all be true; however, it is not the whole truth. There are many ways to refill the vessel. Our compassion vessel is filled by a multidimensional mix of sources and our balance is maintained by the interaction of complex factors – environmental, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. Our job is to make sure all these relationships are in balance for ourselves.

The trouble comes in when these get out of whack: when we are not receiving enough overall to sustain us. When this happens to caregivers whose self-concept is based on giving, we don’t always know how to right the scales – because this often requires us to be open to things like asking for and receiving help, saying ‘no’, or practicing self-care as a top priority (i.e., sometimes making the conscious choice to put yourself first). These are experiences and behaviors we may not have had much opportunity to practice. They might, in fact, make us feel uncomfortable.

As with so many things in life, what we choose to do with that discomfort decides our experience. And this is where things get juicy!

This topic will continue in two weeks with Part 2: Implementing Self-Care, where we will explore answers to the questions of how to make a decision about priorities that includes yourself in the mix and helps you find balance without sacrificing your values – along with practical ideas and examples for putting self-care into practice for yourself!