In the last 5 years I've worked with more and more helping professionals and caregivers, supporting them to be a support to others. It's probably one of the things I enjoy the most, because there are so many good people out there trying to do helping work, and I've actually figured out some things that can allow them to keep doing what they're passionate about, despite the heaviness of the work. I get a little excited about this because I now know without a doubt that it is completely possible to do some amazing things without giving up your life in the process. And actually, it's not only possible, but better for everyone involved - keep in mind that we're able to do more and better work when we can still connect to our own aliveness.
I've noticed that social work and nursing in particular are two of the jobs most susceptible to burnout at a young age (27!), though burnout is also a concern in many other types of helping roles. This could include being a caregiver for a loved one with a mental health issue, an aging parent, a child who is battling an addiction, or even the helping work you take on as a social justice advocate or volunteer. Whatever the particular role (or more often roles), many people struggle with the practicalities of how to be in a caring role while still having boundaries. I'm hoping this post will help those who can relate to being in a caregiving relationship of any kind and are wanting to do it in a way that's sustainable.
As a helping professional, part of our job is to connect with people. But there can be this unhealthy thing that happens where instead of joining with the person we're caring for in a way that feels safe and connected for both of us, we accidentally begin to merge with them.
What does it mean to merge? To merge means we take on their nervous system (so their despair becomes ours, and their anxiety becomes ours, for example. As they begin breathing faster or becoming collapsed in their bodies, so do we). As this happens, we begin to lose ourselves and our boundaries. Now, one of the hallmarks of trauma is a lack of curiosity (about the future, new activities, and the here and now… so if we lose that curiosity, and just start to feel in despair WITH them, we need to pay attention to that). Another sign that we're merging could be when we find ourselves all too often in the caretaking role despite the effect it’s having on us. Or when we feel the need to fix someone, and say to ourselves “I have to take on the hardest cases because they NEED me”. When this type of merging happens, then we've lost our curiosity and your hopefulness in their ability to heal. And we will get sick.
Joined with the person we’re helping is the place we’re aiming to be more of the time. Being joined means we're connected to ourselves, in the here and now, hopeful, and curious.
A third possibility is that we become disengaged (giving up, thinking about something else). This isn't helpful either, as healing depends on human connection and presence.
If you find yourself merging, what can you do?
It’s an important question and one that most caregivers find themselves struggling with at some point. My answer is to remember that the hour you can spend exposing that person to a healthy nervous system can be hugely impactful. You don’t actually have to fix this for them, or take on their pain for them.
So, you may want to ask yourself:
What helps you get grounded within yourself?
What helps you move from being merged to being joined?
Good luck exploring!
*The framework of merging and joining was taught to me at a Somatic Experiencing workshop I attended – it’s not something I created. I want to honor those contributions, and many others, to the ongoing conversation about sustainable caregiving.*
Nicole Perry is a Registered Psychologist and writer with a private practice in Edmonton. Her approach is collaborative and feminist at its heart. She specializes in healing trauma, building shame resilience, and setting boundaries.
About the Blog
This space will provide information, stories, and answers to big questions about some of my favorite topics - boundaries, burnout, trauma, self compassion, and shame resilience - all from a feminist counselling perspective. It's also a space I'm exploring and refining new ideas.