Paris* was frustrated with herself. She seemed to be crying at the drop of a hat lately. She sometimes felt like she was drowning. Her nephew had been picked up for shoplifting, her mom was having some tests done for a lump she had found in her breast. Her friend was going through a divorce and there was another school shooting on the news. Other people seemed to be walking around just fine. Why was she struggling so much? She wanted to be there for people, to be strong but it was all so overwhelming. As a teacher, she seemed to be better at not getting involved in every student’s life, but sometimes it was hard and the system was not helping at all. Kids seemed to be falling through the cracks. She was so tired at the end of the day but kept waking up in the night and couldn’t seem to catch up with her sleep. Yesterday, a colleague asked how she was doing and it was all she could do to not tear up in front of the entire staff room. It was embarrassing.
*No individual person or situation is intended to be represented within this story.
Even when our lives are relatively stable, many of us feel overwhelmed by the struggles of those around us, not to mention the daily barrage of crisis, war and catastrophe’s around the world. You don’t have to be “overly sensitive” to be affected by all of these things. Some of us believe that having strong feelings means that we are weak and we feel embarrassed and ashamed when our feelings seem to be taking over. (See 9 Myths about Emotions for more about this). It can be difficult to figure out how to balance the needs of those around you, without completely burning out.
Here are FOUR things to consider when you are feeling overwhelmed by the needs of others:
1. Maybe you’ve confused sympathy with caring
An ambulance arrives on the scene of an accident. The attendant gets out of the vehicle to assess the situation and sees a woman lying on the ground bleeding and moaning. The attendant goes over to the woman and kneels down beside her, looks at the wound and then at the woman’s face. The ambulance attendant then begins to weep and then takes the woman’s hand and lies down next to her on the ground overwhelmed but the pain she knows this person is going through.
In the above scenario, we would hope that a health care professional might be able to imagine, at some level, another person’s pain and have compassion for them. However, the person in pain will not feel cared for if that attendant does not act on behalf of the injured person to help fix what needs to be fixed; to call for more help if needed; or to actively care for that persons needs, using the skills and tools that they possess. Having the same emotions as another person will not necessarily feel like caring to another person if there is no action. And, simply feeling what you believe another persons feels with the intensity that you believe they feel it, is more like to overwhelm you and leave you with less energy to act on their behalf. This is not only true for physical pain but also for emotional pain and stress.
We are not actually able to fully imagine what another person is feeling. We can only filter what we are seeing or hearing (in the above example: an injury, moans and facial expressions) through our own experiences and ways of being, thereby assuming that the other person feels what we think they are feeling. We might actually be completely wrong about another persons’ experience.
We can also be triggered by other people’s feelings. If I tend to be a somewhat anxious person, I will likely respond to anything that sounds, smells or feels like anxiety in another person and add it to my own already existing anxiety. In the same way, if I have experienced something similar to another person, I am more likely to assume that what I felt in that context (despite having had a different context, history, DNA and different personality traits) is what that person is feeling.
In order to transform sympathy into caring focus on the practicalities of caring:
- Ask what would be helpful to the person you are worried for.
- Ensure that you have good boundaries for yourself and can articulate clearly what you can offer (practical help, a listening ear – setting time limits for yourself, information, recommendations for other resources) (See 9 Ways to Support a Loved One with Mental Illness for more on this).
- Ask how the other person is feeling or doing. Respect their answer by assuming that they are telling you the truth.You might also let them know that they can ask if there is anything they need even if they say that they are ok.
- Recognize the resiliency of others and that even if someone is very vulnerable, you will not be able to take full responsibility for all of their needs. Consider what part is your responsibility.
- Know that others may make decisions that you are not comfortable with, but, outside of breaking the law or causing harm to themselves or others, (See Manitoba’s mental health act) they have a right to those decisions.
- Reach out for support from other professionals if you are unsure how to help, particularly if the situation is urgent. (See crisis lines for mental health crisis)
2. Maybe you have been judging yourself based on the values of society that has deified individualism
We live in a VERY individualistic society. The myths of independence “that a strong person does everything on their own,” has effected us all. We have stopped reaching out to friends and family for the emotional and tangible support that happens in a healthy community. We have forgotten what interdependence means. We have forgotten how to work as a team. This ideology is what has created stigma around mental illness, addictions, poverty, etc. When we assume that we are, or should be unaffected by the world around us and then shame ourselves for being affected by the world around us, we have become unwell, as humans. I often hear reaction to the perception that people (usually young people, or people from marginalized groups) are too dependent. I believe that this comes from not understanding what “collective responsibility” means at a fundamental level and of not seeing oneself as a part of a whole.
I do believe there is such a thing as over dependence, when a person cannot see their own strength. This often happens after someone has tried to overcome issues that are bigger than themselves and fail. They then believe that they cannot effects changes in their own life. It can also happen when a caregiver or authority figure has convinced someone that they cannot care for themselves at all (see The 3 Types of Non Physical Abuse). Judging over-dependence in our society is tricky as we, as a society, are biased towards individualism and often deny power imbalances, genuine social barriers and continually tout ‘the individual’ as the only hero.
How to combat extreme individualism in your life:
- Take a risk and be vulnerable with someone you knows cares about you.
- Practice gratitude.
- Find others who care about the same things you do and who are working to make changes in that area through action, advocacy and/or innovation.
- Reach out to other professionals and resources that can address issues in your own life, in the lives of people you care about and the issues that you care about. You don’t have to take everything on alone.
3. Maybe others don’t care enough
There is a lot going on in our world today. There are few problems unique to one individual. I do not believe that any person is an island or that my humanity is not affected by suffering of others. Sometimes there are issues that I believe others have some responsibility in. I can reach out to try and engage those people, be they family members, co-workers or the rest of society, but I cannot make people care. Other people not caring does not mean that I no longer have a responsibility to care. But I do not need to take on the role of a martyr or the lone hero.
The truth is that while others might not care enough about a situation or issue there will be someone, somewhere who does care and may already be acting towards making changes.
When others don’t care enough:
- Learn about effective advocacy and utilize advocacy organizations, (i.e. mental health, disability, hospital, human rights, etc.) and others who are doing this work (see the World Wide Web for more on this;)
- Depending on the situation, consider if there are ways to hold others accountable when they are responsible for a situation, or part of it. Are there legal means, other formalized means (policies, etc.) or other creative means?
- Determine how much you can give of yourself and still care for your other responsibilities including your own health and wellbeing.
- Know that there might be a gap between what is needed in a situation and what is provided, including what you can give. This might result in you experiencing grief for a situation that is unfair and that is cannot be changed. Grief is not the same as losing hope. It means seeing what is currently lost and not denying our feelings about that loss but also noticing what is not lost and what we still have to do and work with. (See Good Grief Work and Grief Without Death).
- Consider your own values and what you want to grow in your own life. Work on those things. Take initiative, look at your day to day life and how you can act in accordance with your values, in terms of the way you spend your time and your money.
4. Maybe you’ve forgotten to care for yourself
The needs of others can sometimes overtake us. There are times when sacrifice is necessary, called for, and even part of our responsibility, but if this is a constant state of affairs, then we need to pay attention to our responsibility for our own well-being. When we compare our situation with others we might be tempted to minimize our own needs and believe that our needs don’t deserve attention as much as others’ needs. Again, if this is a perpetual state of being and the result is that you never pay attention to your own needs, you are likely to get yourself into trouble.
The self help world is chaotic and the advice is often saturated with marketing ploys and underlying sales pitches which do not always have the needs of the individual at their core. It can also come with feeling of shame if one is not able to do all the things that they think they are supposed to do to care for themselves well.
Here are some things to consider when determining your self care needs:
- Think about the long term. If this is a long term situation, what is worth sacrificing for and with is worth sacrificing. You will need to consider your own values. Is your health at risk, your relationships or your responsibilities? Only you can determine what is worth putting at risk for the needs of others.
- What is sustainable. Will you be able to help if you sacrifice the things you believe are worth sacrificing? Think physical health, emotional wellbeing, mental well being.
- Is there a way to balance your convictions and values when they conflict with each other? What is the hierarchy of your values and convictions, in terms of importance? Adjust your activities and energy based on this hierarchy.
- Have you involved others, reached out for more resources or given responsibility where responsibility is due OR are you trying to carry a situation or issue alone? If you are alone, why are you alone? If it is not because there really is no one else anywhere on the planet who can help, (after doing some research on this) then you might need to reconsider your motivations.
- Is guilt or fear your main motivation, if so, how do you move towards hope as a motivation? Guilt and fear are not sustainable motivators and can easily move you into places where you take on more than what is yours in unsustainable ways.
- Consider how much time you spend absorbing information and what kind of information you are absorbing. You will need to be the curator of your own information and pay attention to what motivate your and provides active ways to be caring in this society.
If you are a caring person you may find that you are inundated with the needs of others, people you know and love, people you work with, society, and the planet. No one can or needs to be alone in their concern. Caring is more than a feeling, it is action and we need to be well to act and to work together. Don’t hesitate to reach out or to check in on your own needs while you do this.
Also, check out 9 Mental Health Survival Strategies for the Current Apocalypse