The following was written by a member of the MaleSurvivor community who has observed that sometimes we get a little more concerned with the welfare of others at the expense of our own mental health. Professionals are generally aware of this condition, particularly among their colleagues. However, even professionals are sometimes blind to the problem and unaware of ways to see it coming and prevent it. - KS
This article isn't about anyone or a specific situation. It is about what happens in all professions, and what can happen to any professional. But the reason it is being written is because this issue has never before been addressed in this peer support environment at MS.
The issue is Burnout.
Burnout is a physical, emotional or attitudinal exhaustion characterized by fatigue, insomnia, and depression, as well as higher levels of resentment toward those that are being helped. It is a stress reaction to unrelenting emotional demands.
Burnout occurs because of the large emotional commitment put forth and the small visible gains from that commitment. The effects of the efforts to help another are uncertain and it is not always known whether or not the person helping is appreciated for their efforts.
It is admirable to want to help a fellow human being who is suffering in some way, whether it is from the myriad forms of abuse, medical issues, the day-to-day grind or with problems with their pets or children. Helping one another is not uniquely human, but it is humane. We give support and we receive support, and we pass on to others what we have learned. We let those who have a greater need lean on us and in turn we do our best to buttress them during the times of their despair.
But the problem of burnout starts to occur when an individual is giving too much of himself, without there being enough "down time" to regroup his energies and his sense of balance and perspective.
The amount of pain surrounding us, not only here at MS, but in society in general, is enormous. Those who try to help take on the role of helper and, at times, sole emotional supporter of another. Then they are presented with others who are hurting and they choose to add to the list of those they are helping, one more - and then another, and yet another.
Before the individual is aware, most waking hours are devoted to the helping of others. A few hours' sleep forgone here and there don't seem to be much of an issue when someone is in pain. After all, how many of us have stayed up with a sick or hurting friend just to get them through the night?
The problem comes when this cycle is unrelenting, when there aren't any breaks from the helping. The biggest problem is that the person helping doesn't take time out to address, or even acknowledge, his own needs - the need for sleep, the need to eat, the need to just take a break from helping and to do something enjoyable.
The balance in life is disturbed and the person who has been stretched beyond physical and emotional endurance is now in a place where he is not only feeling like he cannot and has not been helping anyone, but that he is not even able to help himself.
Feelings of self doubt, blame, guilt and anger combine with feelings of despair. The helper disparages himself for not having been able to do "enough" while possibly blaming the person he tried to help for just not "getting it." Communications are strained and the only protection of the self is to back away and shut down.
So how does one prevent and/or combat burnout?
Self care is the key to maintaining a healthy balance and perspective. Expand your social life. Engage in activities other than helping. Develop and maintain an interest in recreational activities. It is imperative to take care of your own needs. Doing so is not selfish, it is necessary. And by doing so, you will then be in a better place from which to be able to help others.
Part II -- Self-care
How many times have you heard "take care of yourself?
But what does that really mean?
Is it driving safely or wearing weather appropriate clothing? Or is it only said as a pleasant way of ending a conversation or visit?
Self-care is so much more. It is something everyone, regardless of profession or vocation needs to do. As foreign as the concept may be, self-care is something that should be at the top of the list of your daily activities. A minimum of fifteen minutes a day should be scheduled into your day for self-care. Of course, the more time you can devote to self-care, the better. Initially, it may feel strange and "selfish" to schedule and take time for yourself. But self-care is anything but selfish. It is necessary to your emotional and physical health and well being.
Part of self-care is the ability to be assertive. It takes assertiveness to tell others "no," especially when you are stressed and/or over-burdened. Since telling others "no" probably hasn't been a large part of your vocabulary, being assertive will require practice.
Other aspects of self-care include getting enough sleep. It is not possible to properly take care of yourself if you are not getting adequate sleep. Sleep is the body's time to repair itself physically and to recharge itself mentally.
Diet is another important factor in self-care. Good nutrition helps your brain and your body function at an optimum level. A lack of proper nutrition will make you tired and will impair your ability to concentrate. Poor nutrition will also affect your physical health and will make you less illness-resistant. A good diet also means that you are not skipping meals.
Exercise is vital to self-care as it provides a physical outlet for stress. Other benefits of exercise are increased stamina, both physically and mentally, and a strengthened immune system. Regular exercise helps to control body weight, which leads to other health benefits. Exercise often results in lower blood pressure, lower risk of diabetes, lower risk of obesity, lower risk of depression and it helps to reduce the frequency of episodes of insomnia.
One overlooked aspect of self-care is regularly scheduled medical care, such as physicals, dental and eye care appointments. Even more important is recognizing the need and taking the time to visit your health care providers when you are not feeling well. Waiting "to see" if you get better when you know you are ill enough to require medical intervention is not self-care. It is not a waste of time to enlist the services of your health care providers when you are feeling ill or if you are injured or you are having dental or vision problems. These issues will not "go away" on their own. Seeking therapy when you need it is another vital aspect of self-care.
Self-care also entails the lighter side of life.
Engage in social activities that have nothing to do with healing. Your social activities should be filled with pleasure and relaxation. The goal is to spend time with friends and to have a good time.
Individual leisure activities that have nothing to do with healing are equally important for well being and self-care. Whether you read, listen to music or engage in hobbies, the focus should be on relaxation and enjoyment.
Travel, whether short day-trips or longer trips may also be a part of your self-care program.
Your self-care may also incorporate spirituality.
Take time to play and have fun. However clichéd, take time to smell the roses.
Above all, add some humor to your day.
Blissfully retired after 35 years treating sexual abuse