"Caregivers experience Compassion Fatigue because they care." – Dr. Charles Figley
Yes, caregiving is dangerous to our health because caregiving leads, if unchecked, to compassion fatigue and burnout. There isn’t a caregiver I know who does not feel exhaustion. It is an occupational hazard. Dr. Charles Figley in his book Compassion Fatigue states that those who care for other vicariously experience the symptoms of those they care for. While most caregivers are attentive to the needs of those they serve, they are equally notorious in developing skills of self-care. Don’t blame them for this as there are three cultural taboos they must confront and shatter to be able to address self-care needs.
Each of the three cultural taboos are children of our cultural myth that we are invincible, like super-man or supper woman. We are taught to be self-reliant and find it difficult to ask for help. It springs from the Horacio Alger myth that as long as we keep working at it we can accomplish anything.
While there this a truth to this myth, the shadow side is that growth and healing is relational. We cannot do everything by ourselves especially in over-coming compassion fatigue and burnout.
My research revealed three cultural taboos that caregivers face. The first is not to trust. Trusting can be dangerous for a caregiver. It begins with caregivers trusting those interior movements with themselves. The first step to recovery is the acknowledgement that I as a caregiver have an issue to be explored. If I am fearful of addressing and trusting my experiences, I begin to isolate myself from not only what I am feeling, but also from my family, friends, and teammates. Not being invincible beings about shame and ridicule.
Because I learn not to trust, I don’t communicate my story. This is the second taboo. Telling your story means that someone will listen. Caregivers experience normal reactions to abnormal traumatic experiences. They don’t want advice; they want to be heard. Who will listen when I wish to express my reaction to a deadly automobile accident? The expectation is to be strong, grin and bear it. Communicating ones story is a sign of weakness.
Because I learn not to trust, or communicate my story, I learn not to express my emotions. Emotions are dangerous. Yet to be human is to have emotions. So we bury them until one day we are like a ticking time bomb. Reflecting on our emotions can lead is to the depths of our soul and allow the deep healing to occur. Again, it is normal for caregivers to have normal reactions to traumatic events.