Caring When Caring Hurts

by Shannon Finch

I admit it, I am sensitive.

As a child, people thought my sensitivity was cute. As I got older, my sensitivity often exasperated my family. People teased; it wasn’t malicious, but it was patronizing and hurtful. I started to think that sensitive people were weak, whiny, and self-indulgent.

Sensitive is defined as “easily damaged, injured, or distressed by slight changes.” Really, who wants to be seen as broken, or bring others down with a sad Eeyore face? So, as a young adult, I tried to toughen up, downplayed my sensitive side, and kept my feelings to myself. For years I searched for ways to fix myself, including therapy.

A couple of years ago, on my way to a therapy appointment, I saw a doe hopping three-legged alongside the road, a hind leg dangling. I couldn’t get the image out of my head. I told the therapist about it, and he said, “You can’t fix things like that, so why get so upset about it?”

That therapist may have been right, but he was wrong about me. I’d been coming at this from the wrong angle.

I’d been working hard to avoid those painful feelings because I didn’t feel strong enough to bear them. All my life I’d been trying to reach some emotional gated community where I’d be insulated from the pain and suffering of the world. The therapist’s response was insensitive, but it was a turning point for me.

Right then I decided I never, ever wanted to be someone who didn’t care, even if caring was painful.

You see, sensitive also means “responsive to.” When I look back at the times I was most “sensitive,” I was responding to some other being’s need.

Turning a blind eye was not the answer. I hadn’t stopped rescuing other creatures in distress, or standing up for the social underdog at school, or talking with the lonely senior citizen; I just did it quietly.

I experienced what educator Parker Palmer calls the divided life. When we don’t feel safe being who we are, we cover it up and present a different, supposedly more acceptable person to the world. This disconnect between my inner and public personas had caused me more anxiety and confusion than any sad or horrific events.

I decided that rather than avoiding or fixing these feelings, I was just going to feel them, sit with them, even wallow in them for a bit, if necessary. Then I would pick myself up, go dig in the dirt, walk the dogs, brush my donkey, or draw the blinds and watch Spongebob Squarepants — whatever I could do to get myself on some solid ground.

I don’t believe that sensitives should go limping through life, battered and struggling. Compassion fatigue, so common in the helping professions, has been in the news lately, and that is good. I’d like to go further and suggest that we build up what counselor Beth Gammie calls “compassion resilience.”

Compassion resilience is “the ability to maintain your physical, emotional and mental well-being while responding compassionately to the suffering of others.”

We each have to figure out what fills the well, whether it’s art, or spending time with friends and family, or Spongebob Squarepants binges. If caring for yourself means getting qualified professional help (from the right person), then do it.

Self-care is not selfish; it’s pragmatic. When I take care of myself, I get strength. I can weather the fear and anxiety, the grief and anger.

The emotions that come with caring don’t paralyze me as much; they often become fuel for action, in ways I was unable to do as a child. I don’t apologize for my sensitivity. I care zero figs about what some others, like that therapist, think of me.

I do care what I think of me.

I periodically see a doe with a pronounced hind leg limp on my dirt road. I’m almost certain she’s my deer. She looks healthy, and surprisingly, is able to jump over fences. I’ve seen her do it to get to her fawn. Talk about resilience, strength, and healing!

She reminds me that we can be a little broken, yet powerful beyond measure.

Here are some resources that have been helpful to me:

  • The Highly Sensitive Person by Elaine Aron, Broadway Books, 1997.
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brene Brown, Avery, 2015.
  • “The Power of Vulnerability” by Brene Brown. TED talk. 2010.
  • Rising Strong: The Reckoning, the Rumble, the Revolution by Brene Brown, Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
  • Your Corner of the Universe, a Guide to Self-Therapy Through Journal Writing by Andrea Campbell, iUniverse, 2000.
  • Healing Through the Dark Emotions: The Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair by Miriam Greenspan, Shambhala, 2004.
  • Feel the Fear…and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, Ballantine Books, 2006. (useful in a general sense about fear)
  • Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in Without Going Crazy by Joanna Macy, New World Library, 2012.
  • The Art of Extreme Self Care: Transform Your Life One Month at a Time by Cheryl Richardson, Hay House 2012.