There is a Cost to Caring - 20/08/20

When I give seminars on burnout and vicarious trauma to therapy professionals, I almost always see a group of earnest and caring individuals who also look completely exhausted. We now have a label for this emotional exhaustion, ‘compassion fatigue’. And in South Africa you don’t have to be a care worker to experience it.

If you are sensitive to the inequalities of our society and its concomitant suffering, it’s likely you may feel a little overwhelmed and burnt out. Sometimes we can yo-yo from annoyance to anger and then to  guilt, and yet still struggle with wanting to help others and do the right thing. I know this space well. I’ve been in it most of my life, including periods of burnout when I questioned the relationship between doing seemingly meaningful activities (translate that to ‘helping others’) and pleasurable ones as banal as going for a walk. Fortunately, there is much more awareness today of how we all need to include self-care activities into our daily lives such as eating healthily, seeing friends and doing some exercise. I work with humanitarian workers and even these self-sacrificing frontliners are accepting these as truths. And yet, there is still a high burnout rate amongst this population.

While Victor Frankl teaches that happiness is a by-product of doing meaningful activities; I’ve found that it’s not enough to sustain us over a lifetime of service. What I feel I was not taught there is that meaningful work done with guilt and a sense obligation, is not ideal. We give insufficient attention to the values of contentment and joy as our own personal guide in relation to others. This is the opposite of selfish behaviour as this joy comes from wholehearted authentic connection, instead of because we know we ‘should’. A release of oxytocin following a positive connection is similar to the feeling we get when holding a baby.

The entry point for counselling is providing a safe and non-judgemental relationship. This can also happen when we truly listen to a friend. Yet many of us are critical with ourselves. There is no individual who does not bear their own burdens. Yet instead of taking a moment to connect and realise we are all part of a shared humanity; a counsellor may instead conclude that she does not have any grounds to feel her own pain. How can we be compassionate to others but not to ourselves? When we release self-judgement, we make space for our own creative problem solving to emerge.

Self-compassion (not self-pity), is essential to caring for others. We are truly blessed in our community to have people who are not just generous but are connected with the joy of giving in many different ways. My hope is that we grow not just in good intention, but in true connection to others and ourselves.