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Caregiver Resiliency: Strength from Within

by Al Siebert, PhD, Director, The Resiliency Center

It takes exceptional emotional strength to be a caregiver. You must be able to maintain your own inner stability while interacting with others who may be distressed, emotionally injured, or unstable—and do this in ways so that they can gradually develop their own emotional strengths and coping skills.

Here are useful questions to ask yourself if you are a caregiver to traumatized people or an emergency worker. Discuss your answers with other caregivers:

  1. What qualities make someone a good caregiver with traumatized people? What are people like who are not suited to be caregivers?

  2. Why do you want to help others? Why do you do this work?

  3. How do you sustain your health, positive energy, and well-being when exposed to pain in others? How are you able to extend positive, healing energy to others without taking on their pain, distress, and negative energies?

  4. Explain the difference between sympathy and compassionate professional empathy.

  5. Can you choose to respond with sympathy, express empathy, or remain emotionally detached? When might you remain detached?

The best caregivers have compassionate empathy for victims while avoiding becoming traumatized by exposure to pain in others that comes from too much sympathy. A sympathetic reaction means to experience what the other person is feeling or has gone through. Sympathetic reactions have two drawbacks. Sympathy can force traumatized people to have to deal with the emotional reactions of the listener, and sympathy can make the caregiver vulnerable to developing bystander PTSD, professional burnout, or worse.

Emotionally resilient people hold up well under pressure and can gain strength from rough emotional experiences. Here are qualities and attitudes found in caregivers and emergencies workers who hold up well. How much is the following list descriptive of you?

  • Expect good outcomes. Research shows that optimistic people have better health, are more stress resistant, persist longer, and have more personal success.
  • Maintain a playful, humorous spirit. Play with situations. Enjoy things as children do. Have a good time almost anywhere. "What is funny about this?" Research shows that positive feelings expand cognitive skills and strengthen resiliency.
  • Be curious. Ask questions. Want to know how things work. Experiment, make mistakes, get hurt, laugh. Ask: "What if I did this?"
  • Constantly learn from experience. Ask "What is the lesson here? What can I learn from this? How can I do better the next time?"
  • Be emotionally flexible. Be both strong and gentle, sensitive and tough, logical and intuitive, calm and emotional, serious and playful, and so forth. The more counter-balanced inner qualities you develop, the better.
  • Enjoy solid self-confidence and self-esteem. Self-confidence is your reputation with yourself. You expect to handle difficult times well because of your past successes. What are your reliable strengths?
  • Self-esteem is how you feel about yourself. It allows you to enjoy praise and compliments. It acts as a buffer against hurtful statements. Critical care nurses, for example, must handle extreme verbal abuse from some patients and families of patients. Public sector workers receive more criticism and less praise than they deserve in the first stages of a disaster. Self-esteem corrects the imbalance.
  • Develop a self-concept of professionalism. Develop your inner standards, values, and principles to use as your frame of reference for your conduct. Defend yourself against attacks and talk back when you must.
  • Let your actions be guided by conscious choices. In crises and emergencies you must make choice about what actions to take, what people to help, and when to step away or detach yourself from what you see. Choices about what you do also lets you resist being conned or manipulated by people trying to get help and benefits they don’t really need or deserve.
  • Sustain good friendships and loving relationships. People are more stress resistant and are less likely to get sick when they have a loving family and good friendships. Lonely people are more vulnerable to distressing conditions.
  • Express feelings honestly. Resilient people express anger, love, dislike, appreciation, grief—the entire range of human emotions honestly and openly, while also being able to choose to suppress feelings when they believe it would be best to do so. These are signs of emotional intelligence.
  • Develop open-minded empathy. See things through the perspectives of others, even critics. Ask "What do others think and feel? What is it like to be them? How do they experience me? What is legitimate about what they feel, say, and do?"
  • Trust intuition. Accept intuition and hunches as valid, useful sources of information. Ask "What is my body telling me? Did that daydream mean anything?"
  • Cultivate a talent for serendipity. Learning lessons in the school of life lets you convert a situation that is emotionally overwhelming for others into something emotionally strengthening for you. A good indicator of deep resiliency is when a caregiver talking about a difficult situation says "I would never willingly go through anything like that again, but it was the one the best experiences of my life." Ask yourself "Why is good about my experience?"

Deeply resilient people let themselves be transformed by their experiences. When life handles you an extreme challenge, you will never be the same again. You can emerge exhausted, bitter, and traumatized, or you can emerge stronger and better. You have it in you to determine which way it will be.

© copyright, 2005, Al Siebert

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