Heather Forbes, LCSW, is one of my favorite parenting experts and the following Q&A by her is a great explanation for “burnout” — and applies not just to parents, but also mental health professionals and other caregivers.
In Self-Acceptance Psychology I describe those who are “Self-Blamers.” Burnout is due to a Self-Blamer’s high need for the approval of others to gain a feeling of validation. (Because they lack self-acceptance!) The Self-Blamer believes: “If I care and help you, and you don’t change, I am a failure.” This triggers shaming and blaming messages that lead to anxiety, depression and other emotional distress.
One must gain self-acceptance so that one can let go of a need to gain approval. This is the healthiest way for all of us, especially caregivers, to go through life.
From Heather’s Daily Reflections:
“In order for children to open up to their past trauma memories, the parent has to be willing to be a ‘parental sponge’–acknowledging, absorbing, and experiencing every feeling, every tear, and every fear associated with the trauma. Now that is connection!”
Q: I just read my first reflection, regarding being a parental sponge and while I agree with the spirit of it, my concern is this: “Experiencing your child’s or client’s trauma at such an intensity, couldn’t that create trauma for the person being the ‘sponge’?” I feel I am very empathic but how can I do that without hurting myself?
A: This is an insightful question. Traditionally, most of us are empathic and give compassion in a way that ultimately drains us. This is because of a core belief that tells us that by giving empathy, we will be able to make this person better or that we have the ability to “fix” the problem for this person.
We own that it is up to us to get this person to shift into a calm, peaceful, and regulated state. Their issue then becomes our issue and we stay focused on the outcome of them being better.
It becomes a simple mathematical equation. If I give empathy (E), if I listen (L), and if I spend my time with this person (T) , he will be better (B). E + L + T = B
Yet, when we give these three and the result is not what we expected, we feel a sense of failure. We turn it back on ourselves and hear the old negative tapes playing in our head, “I didn’t try hard enough.” “I’m not good enough.” “I should have done something different.” BAM! The negative feedback loop then feeds on itself right within our own mind. Fatigue, overwhelm, and even resentment begin to brew within our internal selves.
In order to be a sponge, the only action we need to take is to simply be present with our child (or friend, spouse, coworker). It is not up to us to make this person better. The reality is that we cannot change or fix another person. We can surround them with support; we can love them unconditionally, free of judgment or control; we can set appropriate boundaries, and we can align with their pain. Yet in doing this, it is still ultimately up to them to make their life work.
Additionally, if we enter into an interaction with a child, expecting him to be better, we are actually adding more stress to the equation, which will create more fear and hinder the healing process. We must stay focused on giving our love without expecting anything in return. That is the essential definition of love.
Entering into an interaction with an expectation of an outcome is not true love. This is conditional love. Conditional love drains us. Unconditional love energizes and liberates us.
So that is the theory and I know you are reading this and wanting some meat to chew on–you want application to your 16-year-old teenager whose girlfriend just dumped him and he is feeling like the entire world is coming to an end. You see how his past abandonment issues are being triggered and how this situation is being magnified due to his early adoption history.
Reprogram your thinking to see that what he needs is your support, your attention, and your unconditional acceptance. It is not up to you to make this okay for him. Trust that it is in the struggles of life that we learn and grow to our maximum potential.
By being empathetic, by listening, by spending time, and being present with him you are doing EVERYTHING for him. Stay focused on the outcome of you being the absolutely best parent you can be, no matter the outcome of his emotional state at the moment. Your “success” cannot be tied to his feeling better instantaneously.
Keep being the sponge for your child’s pain. Become energized by the power of putting unconditional love into action. There is no greater state to be in on this planet!
Heather T. Forbes, LCSW