If you are a woman, chances are you care too much. Women are born programmed with not only the desire to take care of their loved ones but with an indefatigable need to do so. For the most part, we are resilient enough to go beyond the call of duty from time to time and continue to function effectively.
Facing mid-life caring for others
Our generation faces unique challenges, however, that has quickly left us clamoring to satisfy this drive with no relief in sight. We now face mid-life not only handling the launching of our children out into the world, but also with careers at their peak, often single or coping with complex multiple families of divorce and remarriage, and parents who are living well into their eighties and nineties and needing our help. It is the perfect set up for; you have it, burn out of the first order.
I fell headlong into this trap. Following my mother’s death after a half decade of “taking care” of the needs of my growing children, an ill spouse, my father’s death, and my mother’s growing needs, I hit a wall. I had no idea what was happening to me. All that I knew was that I felt frozen in time, unable to think, move or barely breathe. I sat in the same chair, staring out of the window for weeks. I wasn’t depressed exactly. I knew what that felt like. I was just inert. My husband, God bless him, had the wherewithal to repeatedly say to me, “why wouldn’t you feel this way? You’ve been giving it all away for years. You’re depleted. Burned Out. Used up.” I remained in this state for better than two months.
It wasn’t until I started to come out of it that I began to read about burn out and all it entailed. Of course, I had known about burn out for years but never considered that it would to apply to me, particularly in the situation I was in. As I read I discovered that women experience a different kind of burnout at mid-life that is now commonly referred to as “compassion fatigue”. It is more or less the same thing as burn out but it is linked specifically to caring, feeling, and empathizing “too much”. Our physical coping mechanism for dealing with the emotional strain of caring for everyone within sight breaks down.
It is a familiar concept to professional caregivers such as nurses, caregivers, social workers and the like. It is now becoming increasingly common in our generation of women who are caring for aging parents. “One-third of women ages 55-69 report helping members of both the older and younger generations (Grundy & Henretta, 2006). Most caregivers of ailing elders are daughters or daughters-in-law in their 40s, 50s, and 60s as daughters are more likely than sons to assist their, or their spouses, aging parents.
Giving, supporting and caring for others are some of a woman’s most precious gifts, but like all strengths taken to their extreme it quickly lead to our downfall. Caring too much can use us up and make it impossible for us not only to keep on giving but also to enjoy our own lives.
The degree to which we may be vulnerable to compassion fatigue will depend on both nature and nurture. If you think that you might be suffering from compassion fatigue, whether it is mild or severe, it is time to take action.
These are some symptoms of compassion fatigue:
• Overwhelming exhaustion, physical and emotional
• Numbness, lack of feelings
• Startling easy
• Gastrointestinal problems, headaches, muscle aches
• Sleep difficulties – difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, nightmares
• Irritability or sudden outbursts
• Overwhelming and irrational fear, anxiety
• Depression, hopelessness
• Loss of objectivity, expectations of self that are irrational
• Overeating, substance abuse, any excessive behavior
A Self Assessment can be found here: http://www.compassionfatigue.org/pages/selftest.html
If you believe you are suffering from compassion fatigue here are a few things you can do.
• Talk to your doctor or homeopath.
• Talk to a therapist or pastor.
• Rest. Eat Right. Participate in moderate exercise.
• Learn and practice relaxation and/or meditation techniques.
• Delegate as much of your responsibilities as possible.
• Take as much time off as possible.