Carolyn Hax: Advice

How to witness suffering yet avoid emotional burnout

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn: Like other people who provide services to others in trouble, do you ever feel burned out? If you don’t, congratulations, but what do you advise to keep it at bay?


Dear Burnout: Sure, I’m susceptible.

I do a few things: I take the vacation time I’m given. (Not all of it yet, but I’ve gotten better.) I also try to space it out over regular intervals so I don’t get too worn.. I set goals for the day and end my day when I reach them. That means sometimes I’m still plugging away after typical business hours, but it also means that sometimes I’m done early and have a few hours of afternoon to myself.

I also keep a few things in mind as I read letters from people in pain:

(1) Things resolve or pass, often without our having to do anything.

(2) Pain is inevitable. I may read about yours and feel pain in sympathy, but I’ve had my agonies as well, and it was OK that you didn’t feel mine with me — or at least were able to sympathize but then forget about it a few minutes later and get on with something joyous or even just ordinary in your life. None of us can afford to live and die by others’ suffering, nor are we built for it.

(3) Where things do linger, it’s good to look into the reasons for that a bit, even if it means just to do some paying forward of kindness locally. Is there a reason something feels personal? Do I have this problem, too, or am I creating it for someone else? Is it time to rethink this completely?

I also recognize and feel grateful every day for my enormous privilege — in who I am, where I was born, how I was educated, who I have in my life, what I do for a living, and even how I control my workload. The ability to remain at arm’s length from the troubles I work with is a form of privilege, too. I think of first responders and military and medical personnel and social workers often, and what they see. And teachers, too — first responders of a different sort. My pain exposure is orders of magnitude … softer.

I’ve added a new strategy recently to my sanity maintenance plan: putting my phone away. My friend and news networks are a gift, but so is the simplicity of limiting my thoughts and attention to the room I’m actually in.

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