Caregiver Burnout
By: Nancy
September 14, 2015

helping hand Those who spend a great deal of their life caring for others…whether that be an ailing family member, someone with a chronic or terminal illness, or your patients if you work in a helping field…can at some point deal with feelings of burnout.  In order to guard against this common problem, I’m going to talk about one, rather uncommon, solution.

Let’s start with this question:  Do you think there is a difference between compassion and empathy, or are they merely synonyms?  I’d like to entertain the notion that there is a difference between the two.  A very important difference.  It is the difference between burning out and maintaining a healthy emotional distance while still being able to give excellent care.  I’m going to use an analogy from high school chemistry to explain this in easy to understand terms.

I think about the difference in compassion and empathy as similar to the same difference between an enzyme and a catalyst.  If we think back to good ole high school chem class, an enzyme is a substance that increases the rate of change in a solution by either taking on or giving up parts of itself, like electrons, etc.  A catalyst does the same job, but does not accept or give up parts of itself to facilitate the change.  A catalyst has an effect on the solution, but remains unchanged itself.

caregiver 1This is a great illustration of the idea of differentiation in relationships, particularly helping relationships.  Sometimes we are called upon in our lives to help others, and sometimes to help a lot and for a long period of time.  How can we keep ourselves well cared for and able to continue helping when there is seemingly no end in sight?  I think this can be achieved by behaving, or thinking, more like a catalyst and less like an enzyme.

I see acting with empathy as being more like an enzyme.  Empathy is about being with someone right where they are, and feeling things right along with them.  This changes the person who is giving the empathy.  Compassion is more like acting as a catalyst, where I can understand what you are going through and help you through it, but I’m not feeling it with you.  It can seem as though this definition of compassion might be cold or detached.  It is detached, but it does not even remotely have to feel “cold.”  On the contrary, I believe that when it is done correctly, the relational space that is held with compassion creates a safety that can bring about even greater closeness.

That seems strange to think about it that way, and it may sound like a paradox, but it actually works.  Just like when a couple de-enmeshes relationally, and this separateness creates a space for true intimacy and vulnerability, so compassion has the potential to create a space of tremendous caring.  The beauty of this is that it accomplishes the mission without over-taxing the emotional centers of the caregiver.  We can only tolerate feeling so much, and then we need to rest or shut down.  By feeling things less personally, we can actually care better, and without burnout.

This can be a difficult line to find, and walk.  If you are interested in learning more about this concept, please feel free to give us a call at 317-218-3038 or email us at [email protected] and we will be happy to help you set an appointment.

Healing Hearts provides counseling services to the surrounding communities of Indianapolis, Fishers, Carmel, Zionsville, Westfield, Noblesville, and Geist. E-Counseling is available for residents of Indiana. Call or text today to set up your appointment. 317-218-3038

© 2015 Nancy Eisenman, MSW, LSW