Caregiver Overwhelm: A story for those who tend and befriend
Listen to me reading the post:
A couple of days ago, I cried in the carwash. It seemed a fitting place for waterworks, and a little screaming, if necessary. I was on my way home with the groceries that were needed to cook supper for my family, but I wasn’t ready to be home yet, so I used the excuse that the car needed washing to buy myself some crying time.
I’d hit overwhelm. My daughter had had surgery earlier in the day, after many months of repeated attempts to address her breathing problems, and the surgery wasn’t entirely successful. Plus we found out new information about her prognosis that’s been discouraging for both of us. In addition to the worry about her, I found myself hitting some nervous system overload due to some things that happened at the hospital that triggered some of my past trauma. This came at the tail end of a month of traveling and teaching, so my resources were already depleted.
Overwhelm happens, and I’ve come to accept it as simple reality in this life I’ve chosen (or any life, for that matter). Sometimes one simply must cry in a carwash to release all of the emotions one is holding, especially when some of that holding is on other people’s behalf. Sometimes a single good cry is enough and sometimes it isn’t.
I have a lot of capacity for holding space, but sometimes I max out on that capacity. It happens to the best of us, and I share this with you to encourage you to give yourself permission to admit when you’re maxed out too.
In this post, though, I want to go a little further and talk about some of the deeper layers of why we get maxed out in this work of holding space and what we can do about it.
What I’ve encountered, again and again, as I travel the world and meet with people who hold space, is that this work especially calls wounded people. My workshops are full of wounded, healing people. (I considered calling them “wounded healers”, but holding space is more about “being with” than it is about “healing”. Perhaps “wounded witnesses” is better.) We become good at holding space for the brokenness and pain in the world partly because we already intimately know the brokenness and pain in ourselves. We learn to bear witness to grief and fear and trauma and all of the other complex emotions in others because we know those things in ourselves.
The challenge is that, even when we do a lot of healing, we continue to carry those wounds with us for life. We never become perfectly healed, saintly people – we just become people who learn to carry those wounds with grace, integrate them into our lives, and use them to help us better understand other people who are wounded.
When scar tissue grows over a flesh wound, that scar tissue may be thicker than the original skin, but it’s also usually more tender and vulnerable and may need special care. Similarly, when we have emotional wounds, we might grow emotional scar tissue over it that protects us, but we remain tender and vulnerable because of it. We’ll likely need to be extra tender with ourselves whenever that emotional wound is bumped.
These wounds that we carry are both blessings and curses. They help us to see the world through more compassionate eyes and they help grow our ability to sit with messiness and discomfort, but they also make us more vulnerable and more in need of healthy boundaries and robust self-care.
Let me share a little about that woundedness in me…
I mentioned above that my nervous system was flooded while I was at the hospital, and that’s because of the multiple traumas that were being triggered while I was there.
A.) I once spent three weeks in another part of that same hospital trying to prolong my third pregnancy, and that pregnancy ended with the stillbirth of my son. During that three week period, I had a significant psychotic break that was probably brought on by the steroids the medical team was pumping into my body to try to speed the development of my son. It was one of the scariest and most confusing 24 hours of my life.
B.) During the course of my marriage, my former husband attempted suicide twice and had to spend a week in the hospital each time. During those times, I served as his advocate and primary caregiver, and (during the second attempt) also had to be a supportive mom to our three young daughters.
That second trauma is the one that’s left the most complex mark on my life. Both times he went into the kind of intense emotional tailspin that resulted in a suicide attempt were times when I’d turned my attention away from him. The first time, I was five months pregnant with our first child. The second time, I was about to launch my own business.
My trauma brain became conditioned to believe that “when I turn my attention away from suffering, people die”. (Or at least they attempt to die – trauma brain doesn’t know the difference.)
That’s just the tip of the iceberg of that particular trauma. It’s hard to go into the details, because the story is not mine alone (and I don’t want to blame or slander anyone), but there were many, many ways, in my marriage, that my trauma brain was conditioned to believe that I (and others) would suffer whenever I was inattentive to another’s suffering, whenever I didn’t sacrifice myself to fill another’s needs, whenever I tried to erect or hold boundaries, and whenever I tried to protect my children from the instability created by the mental illness.
When it comes to stress and trauma, I am well acquainted with all of the typical amygdala reactivity – fight, flight, and freeze – but I am most intimately familiar with one identified more recently as “tend and befriend”. Researchers who named the tend and befriend response found that some people (especially women) react to stressful situations by tending to those most vulnerable to harm and by befriending the perpetrator in order to reduce the harm. Again and again, we put our bodies on the line to try to mitigate harm, until it becomes so much a part of who we are that we no longer notice ourselves doing it. (This has also become a culturally expected role of women – especially mothers – so the complexity of it runs deep. Our trauma often becomes part of the way we are controlled by the dominant culture.)
I spent much of my marriage tending and befriending, in many, many stressful situations, so that pattern is deeply ingrained in me and is easily triggered whenever anything reminds me (usually subconsciously) of the original trauma. Triggers can appear out of nowhere, and I never know what will trigger me, but some of the common sources are: when someone exhibits the behavioural patterns of my former husband’s mental illness, when I am critiqued for not caring enough or being inattentive to suffering, when I feel manipulated by passive-aggressiveness, when conflict makes a situation feel unstable, or when someone ignores or makes fun of one of my boundaries. This can happen in the middle of a workshop I’m facilitating, while I’m interacting with friends or family, or even when someone responds critically to a Facebook post of mine. Each time it happens, my body responds the same way – as though the threat is always just as serious as a person potentially dying.
A flooded nervous system can feel different for each person, but here’s what happens to me, usually instantly and simultaneously: Adrenaline pumps through my body (the physiological preparation for fight or flight) and my heart begins to race, my muscles tense, and I become hyper-alert to any perceived threat. My throat tightens and if I try to speak it might come out sounding choked or emotional. My brain gets buzzy (amygdala hijacking) and I can’t focus, think clearly, or access my capacity for logic and reason. I become hyper-focused on the source of the triggering and my brain keeps looping back to it even when I try to redirect it elsewhere (sometimes long into the night, when I’m trying to sleep). I have an overwhelming compulsion to respond to the perceived threat – usually in a tend and befriend manner, but often also in a fight/flight/freeze fashion – even when I try to convince myself that it doesn’t logically make sense to. Sometimes I dissociate (freeze) and feel numb and checked out, going through the motions of relationships and life but not fully present.
My therapist has helped me to accept that, though I’ve made huge progress in healing the trauma, there will always be a part of it that I will carry with me, like emotional scar tissue. I’ve stopped hoping that I’ll eventually never be triggered and instead I’m learning to integrate this wound into my life and respond with self-compassion when the triggering happens.
The added complexity of this kind of trauma is that it’s not only rooted in my marriage, it’s generational, cultural, and religious. I inherited it from my mom, who had much of the same trauma running through her body and likely inherited it from her mom (and so on). I also inherited it from my patriarchal culture and pacifist religion (i.e., “turn the other cheek” is a deeply held belief in my Mennonite upbringing). With something so deeply rooted in my cells, it’s unrealistic to hope that I can transform it over the course of only a few years. It’s likely something that my children will continue to heal for many years too, because they’ve inherited it from me (though we’re doing our best to heal it together).
Here are some of the things that I do when I am dysregulated (another name for nervous system flooding):
1.) Practice self-soothing in the moment that it happens. Take deep breaths, go for a walk, drink a glass of water, let myself cry, listen to soothing music, lay my hands on my throat and/or heart to soothe the places where I feel my body respond, etc. (For more suggestions, I recommend Gwynn Raimondi’s Nervous System Soothing card deck.) When it happened in the hospital, I walked to the cafeteria for a cup of tea and sat in a hidden corner taking deep breaths while sipping the tea slowly.
2.) Strengthen my boundaries and become fierce about enforcing them. I can, admittedly, come across as rather abrupt and sometimes even a little cruel when I’ve been triggered and need to erect boundaries, but I’ve learned to give myself permission to protect myself in the way that I need to. Sometimes I simply don’t have the spoons to finesse my boundary-enforcement, so occasionally I find myself apologizing after the fact (though I’m careful not to over-apologize or take responsibility for other people’s reactions, because that can be part of my tend and befriend tendency as well). In the hospital, for example, when I became overwhelmed, I gave myself permission to not sit in the same waiting room as my former husband (who I wasn’t expecting to be there) and not explain myself either, because I knew that if I did so, my body would be on high alert and I would have to work extra hard to fight the compulsion to tend and befriend.
3.) Reach out to people who help me co-regulate. I have a few close friends who respond to my texts, in my moments of dysregulation, with just the right compassion, understanding, and protectiveness that help to calm and centre me (i.e., holding space). They were my lifeline in the hospital. Some even offered to drive across town to sit with me, but I decided it wasn’t necessary. They continued to check in on me after the worst of the perceived crisis was over, and I am grateful for the way they supported me through it. The added benefit in admitting to close friends when I’m dysregulated is that the vulnerability helps to normalize it, to mitigate shame, and to build resilience (as Brené Brown teaches).
4.) Continue to look after my body after the flooding has subsided. In a particularly overwhelming incident, it can take quite awhile to return to a sense of calm. Sometimes I still feel shaky and edgy a day or two later. That’s when I immerse myself in epson salt baths, get a massage if necessary, and do some movement practice (sometimes it’s as simple as dancing around my house to the song Brave).
5.) Give myself some intentional time for processing/healing after it’s over. To continue to integrate this trauma wound into my life, I give it a chance to speak to me. After my nervous system has returned to calm, I usually take out my journal and write about the experience and what it revealed. As part of that practice, I always try to find ways to congratulate myself for the ways I’ve made progress, or simply for the way that I survived. This week I had to reschedule a couple of meetings so that I could spend a morning in a coffee shop with my journal, but it was worth it. Sometimes the processing also includes a visit to my therapist or other support-worker.
6.) Treat myself for adrenal fatigue, if necessary. After my marriage ended, I was diagnosed with adrenal fatigue, a condition caused by being in a prolonged state of nervous system and adrenaline overload. I took adrenal health supplements for some time and, though I don’t need them regularly anymore, I still take them occasionally when I go through a period of overload and fatigue.
7.) Practice self-compassion, forgiveness, and grace. This week, I dropped multiple balls, and in some cases, let people down. That’s the kind of thing I tend to beat myself up over, but I’m getting better at acknowledging my imperfections and forgiving myself for the ways I fumble when my brain’s not focusing clearly and/or I’m distracted or overwhelmed and/or I don’t have as much time or energy for things as I expect.
This trauma wound often feels like a burden that I’m stuck carrying for the rest of my life, but I’ve also come to see it as a gift. I likely wouldn’t be doing the work that I do in the way that I do it without such an intimate understanding of trauma. It allows me to be more compassionate with other trauma-impacted people, it helps me to be more attentive to what’s going on beneath the surface with people I’m teaching or coaching, and it’s taught me a lot about boundaries and the value and importance of holding space for yourself.
When I teach, I do it not only from my strengths, but from my weaknesses. I believe that people can benefit from the authentic sharing of the ways that I still get triggered and overwhelmed and the ways that I fail people that I’m trying to help, especially when I’m dysregulated. Sometimes I’ve even admitted to having a flooded nervous system in the middle of a workshop. The response to that kind of sharing is almost always relief and understanding – they’re glad to know that we don’t have to be perfect to do this work of holding space and that their wounds are as welcome as mine.
To be wounded is not to be broken or useless – it is simply to be human and real. It is also to be tender and openhearted. When we learn to treat our own woundedness with compassion and understanding, we can treat other people’s woundedness the same way.
If you find yourself overwhelmed, be as tender as you can with yourself and recognize that you are doing the best that you can with the skills that you have. Your body is uniquely designed to have the kinds of responses that you have, so don’t beat yourself up for the ways that those responses have become maladaptive. Instead, learn to hold space for them, integrate them, find the gifts beneath the pain, and do your best to heal and transform them as much as you can.
We are not meant to be superheroes. We are meant to be imperfect humans fumbling through this life together. We are meant to be wounded witnesses.