Most caregivers struggle at one time or another with how much of themselves to give.
It feels like there isn’t enough time or energy to take care of someone else’s needs and your own. We can go to the gym and have coffee with a friend on Sunday afternoon or we can go see Dad in the nursing home for a few hours. We can sit down and watch a movie with our chronically ill child while folding laundry or we can slip away for some prayerful meditation.
When you’re a professional caregiver or taking care of someone you aren’t that close to, it can be easier to find balance. It’s easier to justify that we need time away from caregiving when the situation doesn’t pull on us so strongly. But when we the person we are caring for is especially dear, we can’t always take a break with a clear conscience. Why is that?
We make choices about the extent of our commitment to another person depending on the depth of our involvement in their suffering.
This seems logical but it has a deeper spiritual component. In other words, do we feel sympathy, empathy, or compassion for the person we care for? How does that affect us and our spiritual growth?
Sympathy is defined as feeling sorry for another person.
It doesn’t mean you have to relate to another person’s discomfort or pain, but you can see that they are uncomfortable and you want to help. There is no personal investment on your part. This type of state is very sensible if you are in a healthcare job. Can you really afford to become emotionally involved in the suffering of all of your patients or residents? Most people who work in this field would argue that a certain degree of detachment is necessary to protect yourself from being drained by your responsibilities. A person in that line of work would be a walking target for burnout if they cared too much.
Empathy is concern on a more personal level.
We can relate to another person’s feeling based on our own experience. We have had pain before so we can imagine how we might feel if we were in another person’s shoes. We want to fix their pain. We can imagine how we might feel with a terminal diagnosis so we treat the person we are caring for the way we imagine we would like to be treated. Empathy makes it harder for us to detach from them to take care of other matters in our lives including self-care.
Compassion goes beyond sympathy and empathy.
It is the decision to allow yourself to really feel what the other person is feeling emotionally. You listen to someone and let yourself feel their fears, worries, or anger. It isn’t that you are trying to put yourself in their place and imagine how you would feel. You actually feel scared of their impending death with them. You mourn with them. You feel angry at the way they were treated by someone. It’s a subtle difference from empathy but it is different.
So, what’s the point?
Well, this isn’t about grammar or splitting hairs. It’s about maximizing your spiritual growth, while taking care of yourself and someone else. I know there are individuals who have come under my care for whom I have felt sympathy. When I worked in a nursing home, the demands were high with lots of residents needing attention. Some people I barely got to know. My goal was to make sure their needs were met and then I moved on to the next person. That’s called efficiency. If we could deal with everyone efficiently, we could certainly find it easy to take care of their basic needs and our own without conflict or guilt. But they are separate from us. A deeper human connection isn’t necessarily present in sympathetic relationships.
I have been in caregiving situations where I felt empathy. It’s good to stop and think about how you would feel in someone else’s shoes. It motivates you to provide better care from something very basic like straightening out bedcovers to something more involved like taking an extra hour to watch a show with someone because you think you would appreciate that if you were sick in bed.
Empathetic caregiving can make tasks take longer and can make you feel guilty every time you walk away.
How would I feel if someone went to the gym when I was unable to get out of my wheelchair? How would I feel if someone went to a party when I was on hospice? It’s certainly not an efficient way to operate and it isn’t healthy for us to look at everything from a projected perspective. We can end up treating ourselves poorly out of guilt.
Compassion can be very painful and emotional. Letting ourselves experience the pain and fear that the other person is feeling can drain us and make it very hard to find the strength to take care of ourselves. When we mourn alongside a person who is suffering while caring for them, we can become debilitated. It’s human nature to protect ourselves by closing off these feelings.
From a spiritual perspective, it’s good for us to dip our toe in compassion at least once in a while. We need to remind ourselves that we are all one. We aren’t really separate from the person beside us. We aren’t above them.
When you suffer, I suffer.
It’s a Zen view and it is wise. But from a practical angle, many of us have to care for more than one precious human. For those in the healthcare field, we have hundreds, if not thousands of people to look after every year. Compassion is not an ideal place to dwell. While it is good for our soul, it’s impractical for our lifestyle every day.
As a caregiver, try to approach the people you care for with a mixture of empathy and compassion.
Allow yourself to be reminded of the oneness you have with them. Treat them as you would like to be treated. Feel their emotions. But preserve yourself. Many people depend on you, and a burned out caregiver becomes useless and unreliable at some point. Finding the balance between caring for another and yourself, while aiming for spiritual growth is a continuous process. I wish you the best on your own journey and welcome your thoughts on this subject.