Burnout: The thin line between selfish and selfless

Eh, according to me you have burnout.  Cough-cough. 
I've been hearing the term "burnout" quite often lately and it made me think about why there are certain types or classes of people who tend to burn out emotionally.  It's sometimes called compassion fatigue because it often people in helping professions are at risk.  Also people in ministry.  Amazingly, I've found that many Christians can suffer this burnout.  Why do some people drive themselves to be giving to the point of collapse?

I think it can start when people believe that their needs aren't important, especially when it interferes with the needs of others.  Mainstream Christianity does have this vague message about being selfless that starkly contrasts with being selfish.  Where being selfless switches into being selfish, however, is often not a clear place and I think that is where some people stumble into giving to the point of exhaustion.

Maybe you're someone that gets to the point where you are emotionally, mentally and spiritually totally exhausted with nothing left to give.   Was one of your primary caregivers someone who was known for hospitality, looking after the less privileged or was in a helping profession?  Did this model to you that other people's needs are more important than your own needs?  I'm not saying your needs always have to come first, but do you even connect with your own needs - emotionally, spiritually and even physically?  Some more questions:
  • Did you learn from your primary caregivers that your needs are too "much"?  
  • Were you repeatedly told that you're too emotional or that you were selfish when you wanted attention?  
  • Were you expected to be very empathetic to your father/mother in order to be tolerated?  
  • Were you expected to parent your parent/s?  Maybe you had a depressed parent or a parent that had a serious addiction to alcohol or drugs?  You had to take care of them or your siblings because your parent couldn't.  
This is by no means an exhaustive list of possible reasons why you might get to the point of extreme compassion fatigue at times, but it sketches the outline of a person who grew up that their needs are not important enough to give attention to.  A person trained this way often gravitates to relationships where this pattern is perpetuated.  So, you might be married to an alcoholic or a person who tends to frown when you show strong emotions or needs that only your partner can supply.  Or you find yourself in the endless sympathy marathon of having friends that suck you dry but ignore you when they are fine.

Whatever your pattern, you can only break it if you take a moment and think about your needs.  Again, it doesn't mean that your needs should always come first, but it does mean that your needs are important also. Do you know what you need or have you suppressed it so much that you don't even know what to ask for from your friends, your partner, your children...

Some hints:  Next time you feel strong emotions or are experiencing conflict with a significant person, ask yourself:  "What do I need right now?"  Do you need to be understood?  Or listened to?  Or appreciated?  Or hugged?  Or held?  Or accepted?  Or validated?  Communicate that to someone in a gentle manner and you'll be surprised how much you'll learn about yourself and your relationships.

See the shapes in clouds again.

"Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun."
Mary Lou Cook

Do you believe you are not creative?  Well, join the crowd.  Most people believe they are not creative because they can’t draw anything more advanced than a stick man.  The truth is that every child is born with the ability to be creative.  The average child thinks of 60 alternatives for any given situation.  The average adult thinks of 6.  It’s a sad fact that we unlearn our creativity as we grow older. We learn more inhibitions.  We ask fewer questions.  We work more and explore less.  We stop seeing shapes in clouds. 

So, what is creativity?  According to Webster’s Dictionary, it is the ability to create something new through one’s imagination.   That means the result of creativity does not have to be a beautiful melody or painting.  It can be a new way of ironing the shirts or mowing the lawn!  Psychological studies have shown that intelligence and creativity are not necessarily related.  A highly intelligent person may therefore not be very creative.  Now for the million dollar question:  How can I recapture my unlearned creativity?   

Here are some suggestions:

Expose yourself to beautiful music.  It has been shown that the music of Mozart and Bach increase creative power through changing the brain waves of listeners.  Music also harmonises the interaction between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, thereby allowing for creativity to flourish!

Expose yourself to visual and performing art.  Allow your imagination to stretch beyond its usual horizon.  Develop your eye for colour, proportion and balance in art.  Delight in the creativity of opera or theatre. 

Expose yourself to different cultures.  If you do not have the money to travel to far-away places, experiment with cooking dishes from other cultures.  Have a Japanese evening with your friends where each friend brings a dish from Japan.  To increase the creative experience, dress up in clothes from the Japan.  Create a kimono from your bathrobe.  Learn a few Japanese words.  Try out the sake and sushi!   
Get in touch with your inner child again.  Look at issues in life and ask:  “How would I look at this situation if I was six years old?”  Observe children in a park and see how they play with wild abandon! Invite some spontaneity back into your life by playing uninhibited games.  Have a shaving cream fight with your significant other or flatmate!  How about blowing bubbles from your balcony?  Indulge in some messy finger painting.  Shake your booty, dancing wildly to some 80s music.  Skip to the kitchen. Laugh from your stomach! Just have fun without being inhibited about what other people might think of you.

Explore your dreams.  Imagine. If you had no restrictions, what would you be doing now?  Diving off a yacht in Greece ala Shirley Valentine?  Pursuing your dream job?  Learning a new skill or craft?  Leave the dirty dishes in the sink overnight? 

Give yourself permission to act and think creatively and see where it takes you.  After all, much of our modern world is the result of the creativity of people:  Thomas Alfa Edison imagined electric light bulbs and Henry Ford created motor vehicles. Steve Jobs imagined all the i-products. Imagine what your creativity can produce in your life. 

Improve your health by...forgiving someone!

Alexander Pope once said, "To err is human; to forgive, Divine." 

Costs to unforgiveness
However, scientific studies have also suggested that, in addition to spiritual benefits, forgiveness also has physical and mental benefits.  So, what happens when we hold on to resentment, anger and bitterness?  We can develop muscle tension leading to neck-, back- and limb pain, headaches, indigestion, high blood pressure and lead to teeth-grinding at night.  Because our feelings and our body chemistry is closely related, our immune system is less likely to function well, increasing our bodies’ vulnerability to disease. 

Forgiveness myth 
How, then, should we approach forgiveness?  One of the most powerful myths regarding forgiveness is that forgiveness means you have to forget that you were hurt by another person.  This is not true.  One can forgive a person without excusing, minimising or justifying the act.  Forgiveness also doesn’t mean that the offense will be treated as acceptable behaviour in the future.  It is also important to remember that forgiveness is not a feeling.  It is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge. 

How do we then forgive?  The first step is to acknowledge the negative feelings and events that caused the hurt.  Sometimes people rush into premature forgiveness to avoid examining these very painful emotions. How do you know if you’ve rushed the forgiveness process?  When you still feel the painful emotions associated with the event in the absence of peace and freedom that results from letting go. The second step is to recognise that you have to move away from the victim-role.  Forgiving the other person is your responsibility. It often takes time, hard work and the recognition that your forgiveness can’t be reliant on the other person’s response.  The other person may never acknowledge how you’ve been hurt or ask for forgiveness.  The third step is to understand how holding on to hurts is influencing your health, thoughts and relationships.  Acknowledging this often provides the motivation necessary to commit to the forgiveness process.  For example, ask yourself: Do I define my life by how I’ve been hurt?  Do I wake up at night thinking how others have hurt me?  Do I run conversations in my head in which I win the argument?  Do past hurts prevent me from trusting others? 

If you still are not convinced that forgiveness have plenty of benefits, consider this:  Forgiveness can help you focus on the positive parts of your life, even if the scars of hurts remain.  Forgiveness can help you grow in compassion, empathy and understanding in relationships, thereby improving your relationships.  Less stress and hostility can lower your blood pressure, relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety and improve psychological and spiritual well-being.  So, what are you waiting for?  Improve your health – forgive someone today!

Note:  In some situations, forgiveness is a more complex process and difficult to complete without support.  This is true when someone, for example, suffered abuse or were the victim of a crime.  Enlisting the support of a counsellor or psychologist might then be the most effective way of going about the forgiveness process.  

John Lennon says: Love means saying you're sorry every fifteen minutes

Love means never having to say you're sorry.  This is a line from the novel and movie Love Story.  Total nonsense.  Love means that you never stop apologising!  

Apology vs Anger-layers
I agree with what John Lennon said:  "Love means having to say you're sorry every fifteen minutes." Nobody's perfect and we really hurt someone close to us at least once a day. Whether its unintentional or intentional doesn't matter:  we hurt one another.  Undealt with, these hurts can build up to become solid anger-layers inside us.  This post is not about these layers.  It's about building the habit of heartfelt apologies and how apologies refresh and build humble, cooperative relationships.  

A heartfelt apology says:  I acknowledge that I violated something about you - your beliefs, values, dignity; something you care about.  A heartfelt apology doesn't have to be heavy but it has to be honest, humble and truly about reconciliation.  Anyone can see a trite apology a mile off and all it does is solidify the anger of the offended party, thereby increasing the relationship rift.

Be like little children
One can see this so well in sibling-relationships in children.  Sibs sometimes come close to murder but a real apology quickly restores harmony.  But let one just give a dishonest "sorry"...the other one is usually quick to protest the plastic apology and the previous conflict just resumes where it was left off!  It takes time to help children work through real conflict and help them to reach real resolution and forgiveness, but it always warms my heart to see how quickly a real sorry fix their relationship.  Doesn't mean they won't be moving on to murder pretty quickly, but it usually is because of new issues.

As adults, we have the responsiblity to teach our children how to apologise.  The most powerful way is by modelling it to them.  The question then is:  How often do you apologise to them for making mistakes with them?  For yelling at them.  Or not sharing your chocolate with them or fighting with their other parent in front of them.  For swearing in traffic.  For making their brother or sister cry.  For losing your patience.  For all the things you expect of them but not doing yourself.  Children are not stupid.  They are able to see when your walk and your talk doesn't match up.  

Apologies prevent shame lifetraps
The thing about not apologising is that it hurts your children.  They have a core need to know true boundaries, true pictures of themself.  If you hurt them but don't apologise, they think they've been treated unfairly because there must be something wrong with them.  That is called shame and is one of the most destructive lifetraps that a person can develop.  From about the age of 8, they start to realise its not all them and they start to mistrust you and everything you try to teach them. 

Just be good enough
I know it is hard to be a parent - so much that sucks you dry.  Nobody expects you to be perfect, just be good enough.  That means that you do the most good you can in a day and make sure it is more than the "bad".  And you apologise for the "bad".  Apologising helps your child to see it's not their bad that makes you upset.  That you had a choice to act in an upbuilding way and you chose not to.  Also that you chose to take responsiblity for your bad choices and that you are willing to humble yourself to restore the relationship.  That the relationship with them is more important than your own ego or your need to feel OK about yourself.  

Every time I've apologised to a child for my own unfair behaviour or words, I've been floored by their willingness to forgive.  And how refreshing it was to be forgiven by their pure little hearts.  I've even gone as far as phoning my nieces at night if I think back over the day and realise that I did something unfair or that I did something that I expect them NOT to do.  It's humbling but it is also great to hear how happy they are that I've made the effort.  

Be adult about it...
Of course, these same things apply to adult relationships as well.  Unfortunately, apologies between adults are not as simple.  But it has exactly the same effect:  it restores peace and reconnects people.  We are made for deep connections and apologies are important ways to deepen connections.  

There are stacks of websites that will give you apology how2's and it bores me to rehash stuff that's already out there.  

However, knowing your own apology language and that of your significant others will probably help the process.  I did this online assessment and I learnt that apologies that focussed on accepting responsiblity are most meaningful to me:
You have chosen Accepting Responsibility as your primary Apology Language. What you are looking for in an apology is maturity. You most want to hear the offending party say, I was wrong and I take responsibility for my actions.
I will ask others to take this questionnaire so I can also apologise to them in ways they find meaningful.  I don't apologise enough and I will make an effort to do so more.  Real love means that you will say sorry frequently.  

Do you make your child feel loved?

Our society is a strange beast.  We are supposed to be more advanced, more knowledgeable, more everthing than in the past.  We definitely live more rushed, busy lives than in the past, that's for sure.  What surprises me, however, is that we are not necessarily advancing in the strengths of our relationships.  In fact, we are probably regressing in this area of our lives...I'm painting with a broad brush here, I know.  

What I do know is that our advanced lives mean that there is a lot of things that interfere with relationship building.  It is easy to consider watching TV together as spending good time.  We all know this is mostly not true.  

Quality? Quantity?
I've realised also with my nephew and nieces that the whole quality instead of quantity time is probably not true either.  Children need both quantity and quality!  I stood in a line to pay at some shop yesterday and saw a child trying to get the attention of her mother.  She finally took hold of her mother's chin in an attempt to turn her mother's face towards her.  It made me think of how important eye-time is to children.  To know that they are seen and known.  

The mirror-face
Children get to know themselves throught the faces of their caregivers.  They experience the expressions on their caregivers' faces as a reflection of them!  If your face lights up each time you see your child, they learn they have value and worth.  If you show discomfort when they cry, they deduce that their emotion is uncomfortable to others.  

Am I valuable? 
Children will learn from your priorities whether they are worthwhile, valuable, fun to be with. If you are always too busy or distracted to give your child one-on-one time, they believe that other things are more important and interesting to you than they are.  On the other hand, children should also learn that they are not the centre of your universe.  They need to understand how the "real world" works and that they can also meet some of their own needs.  I think for example of the ability to self-soothe appropriately and how important this skill is for emotional maturity.  

Be consistent, be good-enough
Bringing up children is not for the weak-hearted.  Unfortunately, so many hurt people in our world are the result of parents who did not take to heart the wonderful responsiblity they took on when they conceived a child.  Fortunately, there are many more parents who dedicate most of their emotional and physical energy to bringing up their children.  If you have read this far, you probably are one of the latter type.  I just want to remind you that you will never be a perfect parent and you will make many mistakes with your children.  That is okay, as long as you try to be as consistent as you can be with the supportive, healthy behaviours.  Be a good-enough parent will be enough.  

Love languages
I came across great assessments for the five love languages.  This site includes an assessment that can be completed by children from about age 5 and teens.  I think these assessments can be done by everyone in the family and could create good dinner time conversations.  Maybe even star charts with everyone's top love languages to encourage showing love in the ways it will mean the most to the receiver. This will also build emotional maturity in children by teaching them how people differ from themselves.  Will also build the concept of reciprocity in relationships and appropriate other-focussedness.  

Affirm me, baby!
So, how about it?  Btw, I did the assessment and apparently Words of Affirmation is my primary love language.  Interesting how I've changed because the last time I did this, it was Physical Touch.  So, probably worth doing this assessment every few years.  

Enjoy building love-language families and showing your children that they are valuable and worth making an effort for in the language they understand best!  

Are you in a self-defeating relationship?

Previously I’ve posted about bad relationship chemistry and how we tend to gravitate towards negative relationship patterns because we love the familiar, even if it’s unhealthy!  Often, we believe we deserve the unhealthy because of our own lifetraps.  A lifetrap is like a pair of glasses through which we see a distorted view of the world.  But because we’ve always had this pair of glasses, we think our distorted view is how things really are.  This distorted view relates to how we look at ourselves, how we perceive others and relationships and the world as a whole. 

For example:  Betty grew up in a home where her dad loved her but never showed it.  He was a quiet man who mostly tinkered in his workshop or read his newspaper.  When she tried to get his attention, he would get irritated with her.  Betty’s lifetrap glasses could make her world look like this:
·      Self:  I’m boring and not interesting enough to get attention from men.  My emotional needs are irritating.  I’m likely to be rejected if I make my needs known.
·      Others/relationships:  I can’t expect other’s to want to meet my emotional needs.  I should not bother others with my needs.
·      The world:  Rejecting; cold.

Betty therefore believes there is something wrong with her because she was not enough to warrant attention from her dad.  Her needs are not as important as her father’s needs and she believes that if she asks for emotional needs to be met, she will be rejected.  This then just confirms that there is something wrong with her.  She has learnt that love means that your emotional needs are not as important as what the other person wants.  Asking for emotional nurturance or guidance will mean you will probably be rejected as if you’re irritating.  This lifetrap tells her that this must mean that there is something wrong with her needs and emotions...and with her as a person.

These are the lifetraps of Emotional Deprivation and Shame/Defectiveness. 

How does this influence the type of relationships Betty gets involved in?  You’ve probably guessed.  Because she thinks her emotional needs are less important than those of others, she suppresses her needs.  She gets attracted to strong, quiet men, just like her dad.   They make her feel safe, because they’re not emotional or insecure.  However, they also don’t like it when she gets “uncontrolled” and emotional.  They tell her she is “needy” when she wants emotional reassurance or nurturance, just like her dad did.  They sometimes look at her like she’s crazy when she expresses strong needs or emotions – just like her dad. 

Betty has fallen into a relationship pattern of lifetrap chemistry.  She believes her emotional needs are not valid and therefore she is attracted to men who treat her in a way that confirms her beliefs; men who are rejecting of emotional needs and emotionally distant like her dad.  To avoid being rejected she suppresses her needs and emotions and focuses on being sensitive to his needs, maybe in the hope that if she’s giving enough he will return the favour.  Of course, he has his own lifetraps and he never learns from her.  The more emotionally demanding she becomes, the more rejecting he becomes.  This dynamic confirms all her beliefs:  I’m not allowed to have needs.  My needs are not OK.  I will be rejected by others if I’m real and vulnerable. 

It really is a vicious circle.

It is interesting, however, how much sexual chemistry is involved when there are really toxic lifetrap chemistry going on.  Nowadays, being attracted to a partner or having sexual chemistry seems to be a deciding factor with partner selection.  Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this chemistry is often based on lifetrap chemistry.  Bad chemistry that will create more trouble than it’s worth. 

This is my pet cringe:  new very-much-in-love couples who radiate lifetrap chemistry.  I feel like the prophet of doom when I recognise it and I usually keep quiet.  But it doesn’t feel great when I later see the emotional turmoil involved in this relationship.  Painful, actually because I know that it can be prevented or resolved.  Either way requires confronting the self and taking responsibility for your own beliefs and actions.  That’s also difficult, which is why most people choose to carry on with the familiar pattern.  Better the devil you know, hey?

Do you have a pattern of lifetrap chemistry relationships?  What has been the effect on your life?  What beliefs about yourself and relationships drives these bad chemistry relationships?