Compassion fatigue can occur when our expressions of empathy and our acts of altruism begin to have a negative effect on our lives. A crucial component of living the benefit mindset is that in order to support the wellbeing of others, we must be sure to attend to our own health and happiness as well.
This type of “benevolence burnout” can also occur when we feel powerless to help someone we deeply care about or when we fail to enact real change. Suddenly, someone else’s trauma becomes our own anguish, or an external crisis becomes our own calamity. We then begin to feel emotional distress and/or physical pain. We may shut down or lash out or become resentful, none of which benefits anyone.
Of course, the empathy, inclusion, and altruism inspired by a benefit mindset doesn’t have to result in compassion fatigue. Supporting the wellbeing of others always equally benefits both the giver and receiver, and the resulting joy, belonging, and efficacy we feel brings enhanced meaning, fulfillment, and health to our lives.
Sometimes, however, to be of true support to others, we need to let go…
Whenever I feel overwhelmed and assume I’m responsible for others, I remind myself that my true role is to be responsible to others, both personally and professionally. I step back and rely on faith, grace, and gratitude to guide my thoughts, instead of automatically resorting to fear, worry, panic, or bitterness.
Here are the ten ways I refocus and reaffirm my proper role as a compassionate person:
1. Letting go doesn’t mean I stop caring; it means I listen more than I speak when someone is upset. I don’t problem-solve or try to talk someone out of what they’re feeling. I wait for them to ask for my advice before ever offering suggestions, and I allow the simple expression of another’s feelings to provide the release and relief they seek.
2. Letting go isn’t enabling, protecting, or rescuing another; it’s allowing them to learn from natural consequences and to face reality, no matter how harsh or unfair life can be at times.
3. Letting go is accepting my proper place in every relationship; this means that another’s success or happiness isn’t completely in my hands or my full responsibility.
4. Letting go isn’t to care for but to care about.
5. Letting go isn’t trying to change or blame another; it’s being supportive, understanding, encouraging, and accepting.
6. Letting go isn’t judging; it’s allowing another to live their own journey free from my external expectations or assumptions.
7. Letting go isn’t fixing things for others; it’s making the most of myself so I can share my passions and talents with the world.
8. Letting go isn’t being in the middle arranging every detail and result; it’s allowing others to affect their own destinies.
9. Letting go isn’t adjusting everything to my desires; it’s taking each day as it comes and cherishing myself in it.
10. Letting go is fearing less and loving more.
As a brand new teacher, I naively (and audaciously) began my career wanting to “save” my students. After 26 years in the classroom, I continually have students who one can argue are in serious need of “saving.” But as I’ve discovered my true role as a teacher, I’m now only interested in providing my students with the support, skills, and wisdom so they can save themselves– and so one day soon they can also be of the same sort of support to others.
Read more about moving empathy, inclusion, and altruism to the forefront of education in Robert Ward’s book, Teaching the Benefit Mindset.