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.

1 comment:

Barbara.and.Amanda said...

It's incredibly freeing when those who do grow up thinking that love is about performing suddenly realise that we have learned selfish love patterns! I absolutely could not answer if someone asks me what I need at any particular 'now'. I might say vaguely - I think I need food or to sleep. But these are merely symbols of the basic emotional needs a lot of the time..

So I realised recently that my understanding of love is that it's about what I can do for the other person, being compliented for how I look - not for just 'being'. Unselfish meant meeting another's needs (and guessing what they were)and somehow having to be invisible at the same time. Then I was so upset when I realised that I am not being unselfish when I do this because in this pattern, somehow I have to get my needs met - but I follow the same pattern as above with others. If I was to love it meant not asking for needs to be met and being perfect. This means that we can start off in such a needy state ourselves that we do not realise that a) we are not loving others b) we are quite 'dry' in our ability to do so c) and there's no communication!

Good post! These strong emotions - are so important to pay attention to - little red flags. Sometimes it's possible to learn to self soothe when in the grip of one - I've learnt that from you too! :)

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