How to Care without Burning Out (#982)

In a conversation with one of the participants on our Time to Thrive intensive here in Barcelona, we explored the age-old dilemma of how to effectively embrace our compassion for the suffering of others without suffering from “compassion burnout”, a common condition in carers around the world where they become so overwhelmed by the seemingly never-ending stream of problems that it begins to seem hopeless, pointless, or too much to bear.

I shared something I’ve seen in myself that seems to map across fairly well for most people when it comes to how we care for ourselves, our loved ones, and the world around us. Essentially, there are three different states of mind people move through in relation to caring, each one completely normal but only one of which truly allows us to maximize our impact while maintaining (at least most of the time) our equanimity and well-being:

1. Care-full

When we are ‘care-full’, we become so obsessed with our concern for others that there’s no room left for anything else in our heads. While at first, this “overcare” might lead to action, over time we exhaust ourselves with worry and begin to try to control every environment, every action, and every consequence.

What started out as compassion becomes tinged with emotion, and our attempts to make a positive difference are now fueled by anger and fear. Anyone who doesn’t behave the way we think they should becomes “part of the problem”, and we lose perspective on our own point of view.

Eventually, we get so upset by it all that we burn out, pull back, or give up in an attempt to alleviate our own suffering. We become so ‘careful’ about falling back into our old ways that our actions become tentative, and we often enter into a self-reinforcing loop of ineffectiveness, hopelessness, and despair.

2. Care-less

At the other extreme we cut ourselves off from our innate compassion and become “care-less”, as in “I couldn’t care less what’s happening around me, I’ve got problems of my own!” Care-lessness is occasionally innocence but more often willful ignorance – an attempt to hide from the cares of the world to protect ourselves from what we imagine would be the pain of compassion.

When we adopt a care-less attitude towards life, we become careless, We start to make mistakes in our approach to life and others that can cost us friendships, working relationships, and above all disconnect us from our innate wisdom and well-being.

So if being care-full wears us down and being care-less cuts us of from our shared humanity, what’s the alternative?

3. Care-free

To be care-free doesn’t mean not caring. It simply means that we’re not carrying our “cares” around in our thinking, worrying them in our head and ruminating on them throughout the day. Because our mind is care-free, we are in turn free to care about anyone and anything without fear of being worn down or used up.

Into that freedom of mind, our natural compassion wells up. We may cry more but each tear hurts us less. Our natural wisdom and common sense are right there where we left them, guiding us to change what we can, accept what we cannot, and know the difference between them.

In the words of George Bernard Shaw:

This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” for me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.

When I read that quote from a care-less place, it sounds like too much work. When I read it from a care-full place, it sounds like a justification for setting myself on fire in hopes that others might benefit from the light until I’m fully consumed by the flame. But when I read it from a care-free place, I realize that torches are made to burn. They are made to dispel the darkness, mark the path, and light the torches of others. And with a little bit of care, you can burn your torch brightly without ever burning out.

With all my love,

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