Many of us are caregivers, whether we have a special-needs child, a parent with Alzheimer’s, an ill partner, or are in a caregiving profession such as being a nurse, therapist, or teacher. When the stress of continually being there for others is high, we can become overwhelmed by our caregiving responsibilities and run the risk of burning out. The recommendation typically given for caregivers is to engage in self-care strategies such as drawing emotional boundaries between ourselves and those who rely on us (okay for professionals but not so easy with loved ones). Self-care can also take the form of meeting our own needs for relaxation, social support, and healthy living (wonderful advice, but only possible in our downtime and not when we’re in the actual presence of the person we’re caring for). What is discussed less often is how to remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. This is where compassion steps in.
Although the term “compassion fatigue” is well-known, some psychologists are starting to argue that the term should be changed to “empathy fatigue.” Empathy can be defined as emotional resonance — feeling what others are feeling. Our brains actually have specialized mirror neurons designed for this purpose. Mirror neurons evolved to help us quickly know if someone is friend or foe by registering feelings such as anger or friendliness in our own bodies.
The problem for caregivers is that when we’re in the presence of suffering, we feel it in our own bodies. The neuroscientist Tania Singer recently examined the difference between empathy and compassion in an EEG study of the well-known Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.  She asked him to listen to recorded sounds of a woman screaming, with the specific instruction to feel her distress but do nothing more. The pain centers of his brain were very active and he said he found it excruciating. Then Dr. singer asked him to engage in compassion meditation, and while his pain centers were still activated, so were the neural networks associated with love and positive emotions. This completely changed his experience and allowed him to be aware of the woman’s distress with equanimity and the good feelings of an open heart.
The implication for caregivers is that we need to generate lots of compassion — for both ourselves and the person we’re caring for — in order to remain in the presence of suffering without being overwhelmed. In fact, sometimes we may need to spend the bulk of our attention on giving ourselves compassion so that we have enough emotional stability to be there for others. As a mother of a child with autism, I can tell you what a lifesaver self-compassion has been for me (you can learn about my journey with autism in the book and film The Horse Boy — www.horseboymovie.com). Because of the intense sensory issues experienced by autistic children, they are often prone to violent tantrums. When Rowan screamed and screamed because his nervous system was being overloaded and I couldn’t figure out the cause, I would soothe myself with kindness. When my son lost it in the grocery school and strangers gave me nasty looks because they thought I wasn’t disciplining my child properly, I’d give myself the compassion I wasn’t receiving from others. When I made mistakes with Rowan (which were numerous), I recognized that I was a human being doing the best I could, rather than berating myself with criticism. In short, self-compassion helped me cope, and that put me in the balanced emotional mind state needed to deal skillfully with whatever new challenges confronted me.
So if you’re a caregiver, try giving yourself compassion the next time you make a mistake or feel challenged beyond your ability to cope. This may involve gently putting your hand on your heart to physically comfort yourself, and/or saying kind, supportive words to yourself such as “this is so difficult right now, poor darling, I’m sorry it’s so hard,” or whatever feels natural (just think of the types of kind and supportive things you’d say to a close friend in your situation). It may help you get through difficult times and lead to greater happiness and peace of mind.
1). Singer, T. (2012, April). Neuroscience, Empathy and Compassion. Paper presented at the International Symposia for Contemplative Studies, Denver, CO.