In the first of this 7-part series, we discuss the difference between compassion fatigue and burnout (which very often co-express) and what to do about it, with grief and loss and trauma expert Lisa Dinhofer, M.A., CT.
The constant emotional demands of parenting a special needs child can result in compassion fatigue and burnout, two very normal, but different, human responses to chronic or prolonged stressors. Lisa shares that compassion fatigue is akin to feeling as though we just don’t have “enough in our gas tank” in order to continue being in service to another person. It is a sense of depletion which requires appropriate and healthy self-care measures for restoration.
Lisa explains that self-care is often misunderstood as a luxury or signs of weakness. “Anemic remedies” such as bubble baths, candles or boxes of chocolates are routinely suggested, particularly to women, as methods for treating stress. The notion of a bubble bath with candles, or a box of chocolates is not meaningful self-care; it’s a marketing strategy for bubble bath. Eating a bag of Hersey kisses is filling a hole, but it is not restorative, and actually may cause more damage than help. These strategies may be great for destressing after a bad day, but when you have a special needs child, we are talking about larger, on-going issues and stressors that are conditions in which you are existing for a long period of time. That requires more meaningful self-care.
For parents of children with autism, self-care is not a luxury, a sign of weakness, a sign of slacking off, or a sign you are not on your game. Effective self-care is a critical component for long term success in care-taking. Most of us need to change what we think internally about self-care: that it needs to come after everything else or after everyone else. That’s not true. Self-care has to be right up at the top of the priority list because it will keep you on top of your game so that the help and support you are providing can continue to be effective, loving, and nurturing. The notion that helpers don’t need help is a lie.
Meaningful self-care requires that you take an actual break from your environment. If you are constantly in the same environment where you provide care, you will not get a break. Taking respite is not a sign you don’t love the person you are caring for, it is a sign that you love them so much that you are doing what you need to do to be available in a powerful way.
Self-care is also about being aware of what’s going on internally, mentally. What’s the narrative going on in your mind? Do you need to change the narrative? What’s happening with you emotionally? If you are consistently depressed, anxious and angry, you need to address that. These feelings are not symptomatic of not being a loving person, rather they indicate that you are stretched beyond your capability and you need respite.
Meaningful self-care needs to be truly restorative and comes in 2 forms. Actions such as seeing a therapist or counselor, joining a group, going to a group meeting, or seeing a pastor, will provide real support for our difficulties in one way. Being with people who “get you” is vital and reduces the drain on you that happens when you have to explain yourself and your feelings. These are environments where you can engage in “meaningful reciprocal relationships” outside of the environment where you provide care on a regular basis. That can be a house of worship, a support group. It’s important that we have places to go where our problem is understood so we don’t have to explain ourselves or justify, but it is also important to have places where we have fun, and don’t take our problems with us. When we engage in fun it takes us to a different part of our brain that we need for ‘nourishment and restoration. Fun is a very under-rated therapy. It is important to have both support from someone who understands the issues, and also to take a break from the problem.
Burnout is different than compassion fatigue. It is not about the work of being in service to another person, but rather the system in which we are providing this care or service to another – a workplace, a company, and agency, or your own home. The symptoms of burnout include depression, apathy, cynicism, sometimes aggression, anger, or dysthymia (inability to experience happiness or joy with things you used to feel happy about). Common feelings of burnout include such thoughts as:
“It’s never going to get better…”
“It’s always going to be this way…”
“This is not what I signed up for…”
“I don’t really care anymore”
“I am just going through the motions…”
“I don’t know how I am going to get through the next minutes, let alone the next months…”
To manage burnout, look at the system, and look to the other individuals that are part of the system who may also be providing this care, parents for example. Is the system within which you are providing this care working? Or is it actually contributing to your negative feelings and making it harder to doing what you need to do?
Lisa recommends a perspective exercise for those experiencing burnout. Perspective drives how we see and respond to things. She recommends at the beginning or end of each day, we sit down at the same time and in the same way and write 3 things that you are grateful for and/or that went well that day. Start with very basic things…. “When I opened my eyes I could see.” Imagine if when you opened your eyes this morning your sight was gone! We tend to take positives for granted until they are gone. When we do this exercise for 21 days our brain will begin to form a habit of seeing positives in amongst negatives. After 66 days the brain will have formed a groove for the habit of identifying positive things without consciously directing the brain to do so. The more this is done as a practice, the more the brain will seek out information to confirm the positives and reduce the impact of the negatives. This can fundamentally change our perspective to a positive orientation from a negative one. And the reverse is true as well. Fundamentally focusing on the negatives trains the brain to only seek ‘evidence’ to confirm that negative orientation.
About Lisa Dinhofer: Ms. Dinhofer, MA, CT, is a certified Thanatologist and communication expert with 18+ years teaching, consulting and coaching experience for effective messaging and situational management following: traumatic death and loss, abrupt change and chronic conflict within high intensity front-line occupations and business environments. She is a seasoned educator within: healthcare, social work, mental health, law enforcement, attorneys, child welfare agencies, emergency response preparedness, forensic and mortuary, clergy, Call Centers, non-profit and corporate environments.
Ms. Dinhofer provides emergency workplace debriefings and training on work-related stress, burnout, compassion fatigue and trauma and the unique issues associated with excessive exposure to graphic material within child-crime and at-risk environments. Ms. Dinhofer also facilitates education on loss issues specific to pediatric and adult foster care. Ms. Dinhofer has been a featured presenter at over 100 scientific and professional conferences in the U.S., UK, Middle East, and the Czech Republic and has facilitated over 250 workshops. She is the owner of Koden Consulting Services and Ingeni, LLC Consulting and has been an adjunct instructor in the Graduate Thanatology program at Hood College in Frederick, MD