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Don't "Should" on Yourself

  • anonymous Asks ...

    I am a caregiver to my dad who has Alzheimer’s. I got totally burnout around Easter and I basically broke down and had a nervous breakdown and my sister had to come and stay with us for a while to take care of dad while I went away on vacation and got myself back together. She has left now and we made a lot of changes to try to make sure that I won’t get so overwhelmed again, like we have a caregiver helper that comes in 5 days a week now in the mornings so I can go out and run errands. Therefore things are much better, however there is one thing that is really troubling me. One of the main symptoms of burnout is losing your empathy and compassion. That definitely happened to me. But even now that things are way better and I am not burnout any more, I still don’t feel much empathy or compassion for my dad, like I used to. Like a normal human being should. And this makes me feel really upset. What is going on with me?

  • Dr. Mark Abrahams Says ...
    Dr.  Mark Abrahams

    The title is a standard expression among therapists to individuals who get down on themselves, often for no good reason. Since I don't know you from Adam, you'll forgive me if I don't believe that you've lost your empathy and compassion. For all I know, you've been 'bending over backwards' as the expression goes, and have become co-dependent to your dad. When we develop co-dependence, a number of things go awry. Perhaps the most noticeable thing that happens when we step back, take a holiday, and create some necessary and healthy distance, is that we feel badly when we take care of ourselves for a change. We feel guilty and selfish, and perhaps we wrongly believe we've lost our empathy and compassion, but what has really happened is that we begin to treat ourselves with needed empathy and compassion! When we become co-dependent, we put our own needs on the 'back burners,' and attend almost solely to whomever we have assumed responsibility for. 

    Co-dependency is a form of dysfunction because we have lost all perspective and live 'as if' the needs of another, even a parent who has given us much, are more important than our needs are. Even thinking such a thought registers guilt feelings, which are not a result of real guilt, due to mistreatment of our charge, but of neurotic, unfounded guilt feelings. It is not selfish if we take care of ourselves with the same measure of empathy and compassion that we care for others. Not to do so weakens us as care-givers, which is illogical, but it also reveals a form of pathology, a martyr syndrome, or perhaps a form of masochism in which we derive pleasure or satisfaction from real suffering. 

    Admit to yourself that caring for a parent with Alzheimer's is very difficult, and that it does wear a person down. I would suggest that you find a support group, if only for a few meetings, just to give yourself a frame of reference as to just how difficult it is, but also to draw strength from others who are experiencing the same thing. Learn to be patient with yourself. We all have limits. Professional caregivers often need to find 'space' in which to get centered before continuing with a task that requires patience, empathy, and compassion, I know that I do. Lastly, and with all due respect to you and the task at hand, this too shall pass. So be as 'Present' to your dad as you possibly can, and retreat when you need to get centered again. Best regards.


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