Caring for yourself is not the same as being selfish. I think you should start with this rule and keep it mind as you read through the rest of the post. Maybe you are reading this because you’re concerned about your own welfare or that of another person. Either way, the same rule applies; you can’t look after someone else unless you first take care of yourself.
Burnout or compassion fatigue occurs when you’ve exceeded your physical and emotional capacity to cope. Oddly enough, many people who reach this stage are the first to admit their own situation is now hampering their efforts to give support, but the ramifications can run much deeper. The demands of being with someone who is depressed can be very taxing. Over time they can lead to feelings of guilt, anger, frustration and loneliness. Quite simply you feel spent. You are overwhelmed by the situation you first tried to help with and you simply can’t cope anymore. It’s a situation best avoided because at this point you have passed the point of being any use to another person and your own health is severely compromised.
So what are the warning signs you are leading to burnout? We can group these into physical and emotional symptoms. Physically you’ll begin to feel fatigued more often. You’ll experience headaches, backache, stomach upsets and problems with sleeping. You seem to pick up every cough and cold there is and you don’t seem able to shake them off for weeks at a time. Emotionally you’ll begin to feel resentful, irritable and short-tempered. You’ll certainly feel sorry for yourself because you feel trapped, burdened and sad. You may also feel guilty for feeling this way and for wishing you were away from the situation.
We all have different coping thresholds but in order to avoid burnout the important thing is to strike a balance between your needs and those of the person you care about. So stick to your routines, keep an eye on your physical health and remember to exercise, involve others where you are able and monitor your own wellbeing. It’s not a case of failure if you can’t cope, it’s an admission that you recognize and accept some other form of intervention and support is necessary for you and the person you care for.
Jerry Kennard, Ph.D., is a chartered psychologist and associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry’s clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.