When You Can’t Fix It

When You Can’t Fix It

I work with the givers of the world: the healers, the leaders, the brave souls out there trying to make things better in big and small ways.  Often what troubles them most are the moments when they’re confronted with things that they just cannot fix.

When you’re wired as a caregiver, this drive to help, the calling to alleviate suffering — it’s the engine you run on.  And so often there are situations in which we just can’t help in the way we want to.  Your caregiving engine doesn’t have a gear for this, and it creates so much discomfort.

I get it.  When I worked as a counselor in Employee Assistance, we thought of ourselves as the “emotional ER.”  We were often the first point of care for people navigating the worst day, the worst time, of their lives.  In the best cases we could offer tools, guidance, and layers of concrete support to make things better tangibly and quickly.  We could ease the hurt and worry; watch it dissipate before our eyes.

But there are tragedies so great, heartbreaks so raw, unfairness so gaping that nothing can touch it. There is simply nothing we can do. I’ve felt the overwhelming responsibility of attending to unimaginable pain.  Husbands who had just lost their spouse to cancer. Mothers whose child had taken their own life or died by overdose.  Lovers who’d been stunned by infidelity.  Charged with attending to such suffering, I sometimes felt so small and inadequate, like it would swallow me whole.

This experience can be so profound that the caregiver themselves can be injured: a second victim.  In the most extreme, this is called vicarious trauma.  More often we navigate pain we can’t alleviate, over and over, and it becomes a slow drip of helplessness, a veil of detachment that eventually blooms into burnout. The internal phrase, “I’m not doing enough,” repeated over time becomes “I am not enough.”

In my years as a counselor, I learned about compassion: a practice that is paramount in these times when we can’t “fix it.”  Whether we are faced with the suffering of another or presented with a problem over which we have no control, compassion is the most potent and protective tool, a superpower that can help in any situation, no matter how tragic.

Compassion is different than empathy, which is the skill of putting yourself in the shoes of another to imagine, and feel, what they’re feeling. Compassion takes this skill of empathy and wraps it in a layer of caring.  While empathy is a way of feeling, compassion is something you can give.  and like empathy, compassion is not a trait, it is also a skill; a muscle that can be developed.

Compassion has an agency to it – it is something you can do when it feels like nothing can be done.

First, compassion can be conveyed through words. Using words that acknowledge the person’s feelings (empathy), the difficulty of the situation, combined with words of caring; essentially, letting them know they are not alone – is a statement, a gift of compassion.

We also give compassion through our body language.  There is perhaps no more powerful force than our full and unwavering attention. Turn toward the person with an open posture, make eye contact, use gestures that show active listening.  Demonstrate presence, bear witness to their pain without turning away physically or mentally.

My favorite way to practice compassion is completely intangible and invisible, but nonetheless potent. In certain moments when I feel the enormity of a client’s pain, I imagine compassion as rays of light or waves that I generate from inside myself, my empathy and care weaving together.  I imagine it as a palpable force that I’m sending to them from across the room, or through the Zoom camera. Sometimes the silence while this happens is more therapeutic than any words I have.

When you practice compassion, expect it to feel inadequate.  Do it anyway — that’s just the way of it.  Your brain will be tempted to judge anyone in the vicinity, especially yourself.  Judgment is your brain’s favorite escape hatch when you’re feeling discomfort.   Push aside that impulse and bring your mind back to compassion.

Don’t underestimate this skill.  Compassion has more power to heal then you may imagine, and there is abundant evidence that compassionate care positively affects patient outcomes.

If you’re skeptical, or if you’re thinking “I don’t have time for this,” I urge you to watch Dr. Stephen Trzeciak’s Ted Talk, How 40 Seconds of Compassion Could Save a Life.  He tells his own compelling story and weaves in the research about compassion and patient outcomes.

He also points to a finding near and dear to my heart – about the givers I mentioned at the start of this post.  There is growing evidence that the practice of compassion helps protect caregivers against burnout.  Compassion’s healing properties travel both ways – to the receiver and back to the giver.

Wherever you give – as a healthcare provider, a leader, a parent, or as a fellow traveler: compassion is truly a superpower.

Is It Just Stress, or Is This Burnout?

Is It Just Stress, or Is This Burnout?

There’s lot of talk about burnout these days, but it is often misunderstood.  You might be wondering:  Is this what burnout feels like?  Or is this just stress?

Let’s take a minute to look at the difference between stress and burnout.

Stress is a natural and normal response to perceived threats and demands in our environment.  We experience it in big and small ways on a regular basis. Stress is not inherently bad for us.  On the contrary, stress gives us important signals about what’s happening in our world and helps activate us into a response.

Imagine a life with no stress… day after day, week after week, year after year.    Sounds good for a minute…but when you imagine this existence over time, it begins to feel, well, meaningless.  We humans are not built for a life entirely free of stress.  In many ways, stress is an indication of a full, meaningful, connected life.  Psychologist Kelly McGonigal explores this, and the importance of our mindset around stress, in her book, The Upside of Stress.

If you were to list your stressors, right now, I’m guessing that many of them are directly connected to the most precious things in your life – the things you dreamed about having, or creating, or being “when you grew up.”  The things you, in fact, signed up for.  There is in fact, no point to a life without a certain amount of stress.

But here’s the thing.  Many of us, especially those of us who are wired to overachieve, lead, and care for others, find that at some point in our lives, the accumulation of responsibilities and demands of our work in the world, and the volatility and complexity of the world we navigate, has resulted in levels of stress, and a multiplicity of stressors, that outpaces our ability to manage.

This in fact, is the definition of burnout.  According to the World Health Organization, burnout is “a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.”  This sets in motion a slow, often invisible wearing away occurs over time.  Burnout researcher Christina Maslach calls this “an erosion of the soul.”

While stress feels like a power switch being thrown, burnout feels like a slow, gradual dimming of our inner light.   While stress levels rise and fall, burnout gets inside of us.  Burnout affects our thinking and our sense of identity.  We can think of burnout as an injury that occurs after a period of chronic, protracted, unmitigated stress.

Let me ask you a few questions:

  • In recent times, have you felt exhausted in a way that a good night’s rest can’t help?  Has “tired” become your new normal?
  • Do you find yourself feeling numb, shut down to your emotions?
  • Do you feel disconnected from your passion at work, the meaning you once derived from it? Are you more cynical than you once were?
  • Do you feel less productive, less effective – procrastinating more, less confident in your ability to find solutions and tackle challenges?

If any of these questions resonate with the way you’ve been feeling, it’s possible that you’re experiencing burnout, or it’s out there on the horizon.  I encourage you to seek support, whether from someone like me, your doctor, or mental health professional.  You don’t have to feel this way, and seeking help early on is paramount.

If you’re like many of my clients, your impulse is to just push on, to soldier through.  You hope it will get better on its own, that some change in your environment will make things better.  All the while, you feel trapped in a kind of limbo, wondering if you should leave your job, wondering how long you can keep doing this.  In my experience, this is a recipe for more burnout.

So often, we wait too long to seek help because we’re judging ourselves, telling ourselves we should be able to just “figure it out.”  After all, we’re smart and capable, right?  Let me tell you: some of the most burned out people in the world today are the most high-functioning.  They’ve been the go-to employees, the stars, the formal and informal leaders.  In the turbulence and disruption of recent years, the world has leaned on them, hard.  They’ve  been digging deep for a very long time, and their reserves are depleted.

If this resonates with you, you are not alone.

You don’t have to just keep pushing through.  You don’t have to choose between your job and your well-being.

Let’s set up a time to talk.

Want More Love, Joy, and Ease?                                                                                                Set Boundaries.

Want More Love, Joy, and Ease? Set Boundaries.

One of the most loving actions we can take for ourselves and those around us is to create clear and firm boundaries.  There are a lot of misconceptions about boundaries that cause them to be misused or misunderstood. I hope to clear some of that up in this post, so that you might give yourself permission to utilize boundaries as an essential tool for your well-being.

Let’s start by addressing a few myths:

Myth 1:  Boundaries are about other people’s behavior.   

Not so.  Rules about how other people should behave are called manuals;  you can learn more about manuals in my post here.  It’s so helpful to be aware of your manuals, your unconscious attempts to control others’ behavior, because they most often result in exhaustion and frustration.  Attempting to make yourself feel better through controlling others simply doesn’t work.

Boundaries, by contrast, are about you.  They are decisions; firm and loving decisions, about your values, priorities and needs, and what you will and won’t do in given situations.  Boundaries don’t expect anyone else to change.  When you set a boundary, you are deciding with yourself and for yourself what’s important to you, what’s harmful to you, and how you will show up for yourself – no matter what – based on these decisions.

For example, you may decide that cigarette smoke is something to which you do not want exposure.  You set a boundary:  if smoking is occurring, you will remove yourself from that space.  You will choose not to drive in a car with someone smoking, and you will not allow smoking in your car or home.  Notice that you’re not attempting to get anyone else to refrain from smoking; nor are you judging smoking or trying to convince someone to quit. You are creating a boundary for yourself and how you will behave if someone else smokes.

You can let people know your boundaries if you want. While this isn’t always necessary,  it works best when it’s done in the spirit of connection and clarity.  For example: “I want to connect and communicate with you about this, but I have a boundary around yelling.  If you yell at me, I will need to withdraw from my part of the conversation.”   Notice that this is not a judgment about yelling, nor is it a requirement of the other person; it’s clarity about your own boundaries, and what you will do to protect yourself.

Myth 2: Boundaries are selfish.   

Is it selfish to wear a coat when it’s cold outside?  Is it selfish to take your vitamins?  Wear sunblock?  Brush your teeth?  Not at all.  You do all of these things to keep yourself well and healthy, which enables you to contribute to your world and be there for those you love.  Boundaries are self-respecting, not selfish; they are an essential way in which we take responsibility for ourselves and our well-being.

Myth 3: Boundaries are harsh and create distance between people.

While there can be discomfort when setting boundaries, think of it as the same kind of discomfort felt during a good workout or when tackling a goal – there is so much positive emotion on the other side of the discomfort.

Boundaries are a prerequisite for connection:  it’s hard to genuinely be present with others when we are disconnected from ourselves.  When we say “yes” to everything and everyone, neglecting our boundaries, we often simmer in disappointment and resentment toward others and ourselves.  Resentment prevents connection, and over time, damages relationships.

In her book Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead,  Brené Brown notes that people with strong boundaries are more able to generate and feel compassion for others. A boundary is a way of filling our own cup with love and self-respect. Without that for ourselves, we will not have those things available to give.

Looking for a place to start?  Set a boundary around your most precious and finite resource: your time.

Boundaries make room in our lives for the things that really matter.  We can live our purpose, on purpose. Author Leslie Jamison writes about this in her recent New York Times article, The Mind-Boggling Simplicity of Learning to Say No. Jamison notes that by that allowing herself to say no to what doesn’t align with her truest values and desires, she can then “say yes more fully, less grudgingly – because I’m not living life like a pat of butter spread too thinly across toast.”

Boundaries work best when they are both loving and firm.   This means that when you set a boundary, it’s important to honor it, to stick with it.  When you don’t obey your own boundaries, you create confusion and uncertainty for others, and damage your ability to trust yourself.

As Cheryl Strayed writes in her masterpiece, Tiny Beautiful Things, “We have to reach hard in the direction of the lives we want, even if it’s difficult to do so.”

Boundaries are one tool for this reaching hard. When set from a place of caring, and providing clarity for others, boundaries are nothing less than an act of love: for yourself, for that which you want most to create, and for those with whom you want genuine connection.

If you need more boundaries in your life, I can help.  Let’s talk. 

How Burnout Hijacks Your Identity

How Burnout Hijacks Your Identity

Burnout takes its toll in so many ways, and perhaps the most insidious is the way it can hijack your identity.

So often, when my clients articulate their experience of the stressors in their work, they jump from describing what’s happening in the environment directly to a judgment of themselves.

 

  • A physician, relating the overwhelming demands of his last shift, ends with: “I feel like I’m a bad doctor.”

 

  • A therapist, describing the needs and pain of her clients and her depleted reserves of compassion for them, shifts to: “I’m a monster because I don’t feel anything anymore.”

 

  • A leader outlines the multiple demands of a disrupted workplace, and in the next beat, concludes: “I’m ineffective.”

 

In all of these situations, a completely natural thought error is occurring.  Our human brains, often triggered into survival mode, are constantly seeking information about our place in the world and our mastery of our environment.  When circumstances feel out of control, it’s a reflex for us to make it mean something about ourselves.   Your brain jumps back and forth from a story about your circumstances to a story about you, and before long, the two separate and distinct entities become one.

This is so important because the story you tell yourself, about yourself, is your identity.

It’s the story of who you believe yourself to be: your strengths, your unique abilities, the standards you hold for yourself.  We often relegate identity formation to youth and early adulthood, but identity continues to evolve and develop all throughout our lives.

Your identity is the platform, the springboard for how you show up in your life – for your relationships, your roles, your work, yourself.    Nothing could be more worthy of your deliberate attention and creation, as opposed to absorbing it, by default, from your environment.

You are not the situation.  You are an individual navigating a [fill in the blank] situation.

Burnout is a stress injury, caused by stressors in the environment at such volume and acuity that they aren’t being successfully managed.  Burnout isn’t who you are.

You are not your circumstances.  Making this distinction is so important and it’s the first step in liberating yourself from burnout and keeping it at bay.

If this post resonates with you, I can help. Message me in the form below, and we can book a quick call to get started.

 

Now What?

Now What?

Pictured:  Fable’s goal for 2024 appears to be the daily practice of dog yoga.

It’s the end of January.  For many of us, it’s the time when those shiny-new, beautiful goals we romanced at the end of December have…well, let’s just say the honeymoon is over.

Quite often the entire relationship is done -– we’ve already broken up with our goals.  The fling burned hot for only a few short weeks.   Things didn’t turn out as perfectly as we’d imagined a month ago.  Or we didn’t show up as perfectly as we’d hoped, inevitably.  Doing real life with your goal just turned out to be too hard.  Too demanding, too high maintenance.

So, now what?  This most important question is often neglected, stepped over as we resume the old, well-practiced ways of being. Before you pack your things and leave your goal behind, pause and ask yourself: Now what?

Doing this part differently — the part where you want to give up – this is where real change happens. Not in the beautifully crafted plans and color-coded calendar entries. (Perfectionists, I see you.)

This moment, this end-of-January-thaw in the hot pursuit of your goal, is so important to your happiness, to your dreams, to the rest of your life.  This is where you can either learn and grow, or step back into the rinse/repeat cycle of default living.

We want change to be a straight, linear runway off into the horizon.  It’s not.  Real change is a messy, spiraling, circuitous passage. Sometimes it feels like a roller coaster.  Sometimes you’re bushwhacking and wondering if you’ve inadvertently circled back.  Sometimes you wonder: “Will there ever be a nice bench with a decent view on this trail?”  Real change is messy because it happens inside your real human life.

Real change is hard.  Growth can be scary, and exhausting.  But I’ll take it over the hamster wheel any day.

Now what?  If you can be curious, maybe even compassionate with yourself in this moment, there is so much to learn here.  For most of us, when we haven’t been able to stick with a goal, there’s only the opposite of curiosity and compassion.  There are only the jeers from the cheap seats in our brain.  The judgement, the beating ourselves up, giving up on our goals….and giving up on ourselves, again.

Now what?  If you were talking with a friend, even a stranger, about a less-than-perfect January with their goals, what might you say?  I bet it would be a whole lot kinder that how you’re talking to yourself right now.  There’s this fallacy that if we just find a way to be tough enough—if we find the precisely right combination of insults, berating, and self-reproach…this will finally kick us into gear.

Now, what?  This is the moment to come alongside yourself, and lovingly pick yourself back up.

If you were helping a child learn to walk or ride a bike, you’d be gentle, encouraging, patient. You’d create the conditions for them to keep trying.  You’d know, intuitively, that the very muscles they need to walk are strengthened only by the falling itself, over and over again.

This is the moment to learn to coach yourself.

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