When a member of the family experiences problems, an illness, injury or disability, we tend to forget the impact that any of these problems have on other members of the family. Even short-term crises and problems can drain us as we try to be strong in our efforts to be caring and helpful.

Taking care of others with chronic problems requires a lot of energy, love and concern. We all want to do it when problems develop out of love and concern. What we tend to forget is that over time, caretaker burnout can develop leaving the caretaker with a sense of intense fatigue. Many times we do not know what is happening until it is too late. Compassion fatigue is a real psychological disability that can be overwhelming, confusing, and lonely. When we experience burnout and fatigue, it is easy to feel guilt for not being able to handle it all. At the same time there is a desire to run while at the same time feeling frozen to move in any direction.

When problems happen, it can become more than a problem for the individual involved. It can become a family problem/illness. Family members usually also feel distraught, bewildered, overwhelmed and frustrated. Family members may have made strong efforts to get help for their loved ones, but many times they are the ones forgotten about who also need help. It is essential to find a therapist who will talk about what you are experiencing as a caretaker, rather than just talking about the sufferer and their problems. There may be one reaction from the spouse, another from the children, and still another from relatives and friends. Everything, and everyone, can begin to revolve increasingly exclusively around the person with the problem and their disability or illness. The person with the problem tends to focus on it too much and use it as an excuse rather than finding a consistent way of finding solutions to keep the family function. The problem becomes number one in the affected persons life rather than it being number five or six in their life.

Common Issues in Caretaker Burnout

Denial & Minimization: Denial and self-delusion are fueled by a mixture of love, fear, anger and guilt. Denial can range from refusing to recognize that something is wrong to not acknowledging that something harmful is happening to the family.

Enabling Behaviors: When a crisis happens everyone in the system tries to help. Sometimes, for all the right reasons, we do all the wrong things. We may find that we cannot stop giving the sufferer reassurance and comfort beyond what would be expected.We may over-check, keep checking, asking, talking, which only increases the sufferers anxiety and sense of dependency and loss of independence as an adult. Family members may lie and fabricate stories to protect the person and themselves.

High Tolerance for Inappropriate Behaviors: Because there is a chronic exposure to an atmosphere that can be illogical, rigid, and highly stressful, those around the sufferer may begin to assume that the illogical is logical and that the inappropriate is appropriate.Family members can develop a tolerance for inappropriate behaviors rather than comment on, and point them out. Perceptions of family members can become distorted and confused.

Preoccupation with the Sufferer: Many of the family member’s thoughts can center around the person with the problem. Family members become obsessed with trying to think of new ways to help, find solutions, cures, or handling even everyday problems for the sufferer’s problems. There is a progressive focusing of attention on the sufferer along with an equal neglect of the feelings, wants, and needs of oneself and family members. The problem is that the one who is suffering becomes preoccupied with their problem and use it as an excuse on a regular basis.

Confusion and Doubt: As the irrationality, perceptual distortions, and high tolerance of inappropriate behaviors spreads, family members can become trapped trapped in their own web of doubt and uncertainty. Difficulties can be experienced with boundaries, limits, taking on the pain and hurt, as well as the confusion of the sufferer. Mixed feelings are experienced of wanting to be closer to the sufferer while at the same time wanting to let go to avoid further hurt. They may find it difficult to make decisions because any personal decision can be seen as causing discomfort for the sufferer. Loved ones often feel powerless and are powerless in preventing the sufferer’s problems.

Guilt and Depression: Some family members often feel that they can’t do quite enough. Trying to control the uncontrollable, loved ones can feel helpless, impotent, and frustrated. Anger is often suppressed, denied and/or repressed out of guilt. Internalizing feelings comes out later in physical problems, acting out, having affairs, wanting to leave the relationship, or becoming increasingly depressed, helpless, and lost. Guilt-laden, and blaming, statements include how can you do this to me only complicate the situation for loved ones.

Frozen Feelings: When one lives in an intense, fear-driven, environment, those around the sufferer tend to mute their feelings. Family members can feel empty and constricted, as well as overwhelmed and fearful. Family members learn to separate from any type of painful feelings. Frozen feelings lead to addictions of any type in order to thaw and feel again.

Hypervigilance: One becomes hyper-aware of every detail in the environment that may be negative, cause problems, or triggerproblems for the sufferer. The efforts to control the environment by always being aware leads to more exhaustion. Everyone starts toscan for clues to be safe to reduce the continual tensions in the family atmosphere. Everyone is on constant alert. There is little rest and life becomes too serious. This can lead children to learn maladaptive models for intimacy based ways of relating.

Physical & Emotional Symptoms of Caretaker Burnout: Just as the problem/illness/disability can begin to affect the physical and psychological well-being of the sufferer, so too can loved ones be affected by the continual anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty. As family members become stressed and fatigued, they can become at risk for a host of psychosomatic and stress-related illnesses. Physical problems tend to get worse for loved ones, including tension and migraine headaches.

Chronic Low Self-Esteem: One problem that frequently happens is that family members too often narrow their social contacts.Because sufferers can blame those closest to themselves, loved ones might question their own self-worth and adequacy. Because family members are further unable to protect the sufferer from pain and problems, they may irrationally feel overly responsible for the problems. The lack of control in one’s life can lead to a lowered sense of self-esteem and self-condemnation.

Loss of Self: Everyone in the family can suffer a progressive estrangement from the self. By living in continual reaction to the sufferer, some family members can suffer a gradual and progressive loss of self just like the individual with the problems. Because so much of the focus of interaction is around the sufferer, the caretaker can feel invisible. Neglecting their own needs, they are at risk of becoming alienated from what they feel, think, want or need.

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