Aspen current thinking column


Spring 2013

December Current Thinking Column

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Compassion Fatigue

by Joe Paul
Aspen Family Business Group

It was a standing joke in both the Mitchell Company and the family that Lenny and Fred didn’t need to talk since they obviously could read each other’s mind. They were like two puzzle pieces that fit together in such a complimentary way they were known in the community as “the brothers.” Fred knew he had a real challenge before him when his brother and business partner, Lenny, began to forget things like passwords, telephone numbers and the names of valued customers along with little symptoms like illegible penmanship. Later the symptoms would become more disabling.

However, these benign issues begin to cause frustration, resentment, hopelessness, irritability and even fear among the most senior non-family employees of the Mitchell family business. As a brother to Lenny he might protect the company yet by doing things like putting their retirement process on the fast track. But as the president of the company and the employer of over 500 people Fred knew he was ethically bound to be more direct.

Then, when Joyce, Lenny’s administrative secretary of 21 years, came to Fred’s office in tears he knew that denial of the problem would make things even more difficult for everyone concerned. Joyce’s father had died from complications of Parkinson’s Disease and she had come to the realization that with Lenny she was going to have to deal with another painful journey with this incurable disease. She could already see those who were close to the brothers trying to navigate around these complicated issues. After working with the family so long she knew that Fred would be dealing with his emotions by burying his “head deeply into the sand”.

And yet, notwithstanding that denial, she knew that he was also the best suited to protect Lenny, his family, and his company. And that is exactly what Fred did. He took on a key role as the caregiver for Lenny and worked closely with his medical team to assure that Lenny received the best care possible.

As a result, 14 years later Lenny was still involved in life. He had retired, but the progress of the disease had been significantly slowed via strenuous exercise. Ever so slowly, with the support of his family and healthcare team, Lenny’s capacity to navigate his life helped him successfully access the specialized services of a multitude of therapists including physical, speech, cognitive, exercise, a marriage and family therapist, and a social worker. His neurologist over saw all of these activities.

But Joyce also saw the toll that running the business and helping care for Lenny was taking on Fred. He was often exhausted emotionally and physically. His team at work tried to support Fred during this time as they understood how close the he was to Lenny. But his life—and the relationship Fred had with Lenny was not out of balance. This experience can be explained by something called “the Emotional Ledger” that accounts for the balance of “give-and-take” between individuals. Transactions reflected in the emotional ledger can include money, but there are many other factors such as not giving recognition for others’ contributions, harboring a sense of entitlement, mistrust, jealousy, resentment, loss of intimacy, and injustice. A chronically unbalanced Emotional Ledger eventually creates Compassion Fatigue in caregivers because they “over give” without a way to minister to their own needs. If the caregivers don’t look after their own mental health and self-care, mal-adaptive patterns begin to permeate the home and their family business.

Predictable symptoms of compassion fatigue include:

  • Friends stop coming over to visit you at home because the tension is palpable
  • Employees become distracted because they have to be vigilant about the boss’s mood
  • You find yourself looking for a fight and are cranky a lot of the time
  • You create an emotional cut off from others in order to reduce the emotional drain
  • You begin to desire isolation in many forms from others
  • You might be described as having a chip on your shoulder, or thinking the world owes you a living
  • Substance abuse is used to mask feelings
  • You begin to practice compulsive behaviors such as overspending, overeating, gambling, sexual addictions
  • Poor self-care (i.e., hygiene appearance)
  • Legal problems

It goes without saying that when we treat our loved ones with respect, compassion, emotional support, honesty and truthfulness we are investing in our relationships. When we fall upon hard times this reservoir of good will sustains us and our relationships. Yet it is still important that the caretaker find a way to keep his or her own “balance” while honoring this imbalanced relationship. Reaching back to our own “sense of purpose” and making sure we are still living congruently with that purpose is one way of assuring balance. My mother-in-law told me several times that what one requires to have a good life is: Something to do, something to look forward to, and someone to love. Being able to sustain those three things during these times is particularly important.

by Joe Paul



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