Running on Empty: When Caring for Others Leads to Burnout

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”
– Jack Kornfield

Who Are Caregivers

Are you a caregiver? If so, it’s vitally important to know the signs of burnout, how it can impact you, and what steps you can take to address it.

There are many ways you might adopt a caregiving role. If you provide care for children, individuals with disabilities, those with chronic illness, or elderly individuals, you are a caregiver. Many caregivers serve in a professional capacity and receive reimbursement for their work, such as medical or mental health professionals. However, you may also have taken on a caregiving role in an unofficial capacity as a friend or family member of someone in need. All types of caregivers are vulnerable to burnout.

As a caregiver you offer support, care, and compassion to others. You focus on others’ needs, at times ignoring your own. You may be raising children, helping aging parents, supporting friends in need, or working in careers that help people, communities, and animals. Giving back and caring for others can be a rewarding, fulfilling role that creates a sense of purpose and meaning. It can also be a challenging role that puts tremendous strain on the helpers’ own well-being.

What Is Burnout

So what does burnout look like? It is characterized by emotional exhaustion, depersonalization (e.g., treating others in a cynical way), and diminished sense of accomplishment or effectiveness.

It usually sneaks up on you slowly, becoming more pronounced over time until one day you realize you aren’t able to function effectively in your role.


How Burnout Happens

In a work setting, when the atmosphere is hostile, unpredictable, demands are overwhelming, and or the social support is lacking, the hard work of providing care for others can become even more difficult. When you’re running on empty, it’s tough to continue to give to others when you yourself are worn out. It is not a personal failing or a flaw, it is simply a matter of being human. Unfortunately, the context of the work environments and demands can be a fertile ground for occupational burnout. The organizational aspects that contribute to burnout may be role confusion, lack of agency or control, value discrepancies, or work overload.

In personal relationships, you may find it hard to set limits on how much or in what ways you’re supporting your loved ones. It may feel selfish and you may struggle with feelings of guilt if you’re not readily available. You could find yourself dropping whatever you were doing to be there for others, again and again. Perhaps you’ve noticed that you’re bottling up feelings and don’t communicate when you need support or help yourself. This is a draining situation and it can be hard to know or admit that you’re burning out.

Signs of Burnout

Here are some additional signs you should be aware of and watch out for:  

Emotional/mental/physical signs of exhaustion:

  • Low energy most days, fatigue that does not subside even after a night of sleep, dreading getting out of bed
  • Feeling more negative or pessimistic in both professional and personal life
  • Being more forgetful of appointments, responsibilities, events, or chores
  • Insomnia even when you’re physically exhausted or having fitful, restless sleep; not being able to fall asleep for hours; or waking up throughout the night.
  • Increase in illnesses due to a weakened immune system
  • Physical symptoms such as chest pain, muscle tension, stomach aches, headaches
    (If you experience any of these physical symptoms, get a medical check to rule out any other issues)
  • Anxiety – feeling so tense and worried that you feel impaired in your ability to do work
  • Depression – feelings of sadness, worthlessness, guilt or hopelessness

Depersonalization signs:

  • Wanting to isolate yourself from others
  • Avoidance of projects, people, responsibilities
  • Feeling disconnected from others and yourself, finding that you’re not as engaged as you used to be

Diminished effectiveness:

  • Lower productivity, undermined performance and despite your efforts feeling more behind
  • Sense of apathy or caring less about either the tasks, others or your performance
  • Feeling angry or irritable, frustrated with not being as effective

Burnout vs. Stress

There is a difference between feeling stressed and burnout. Some degree of stress can energize and improve performance. Chronic stress, however, takes a toll on our internal resources. Burnout sets in gradually, most often without our immediate awareness but it can be addressed and prevented before it results in self-destructive behaviors.

By listening to our minds and bodies, we can gauge when we’re heading towards the burnout zone. The sooner we recognize the signs, the sooner we have the opportunity to try to do something about it.

How to Handle Burnout

First, practice tuning into your physical and emotional needs with respect.

Second, be honest with how you feel and turn the compassion you have for others toward yourself. You might start by imagining what you would tell a friend or a partner if they were suffering, and speak to yourself in the way you would speak to them.

Third, remind yourself that nurturers and caregivers need care too.


So what is something that nourishes your overall well-being? What gives you energy in the long term, instead of providing short term relief? What is something that soothes you?

Here are some ideas for recharging your mind, body, and spirit. Keep in mind that moderation is key, of course!

  • Activities related to nature and being outside or being around animals
  • Any physical activity, especially if it incorporates fun and play
  • Activities that incorporate all five of your senses
  • Connecting with others in a relaxing way, such as through dance or playing instruments
  • Anything that you enjoyed as a kid

The act of recognizing that you’re in pain and turning toward that pain with the same compassion you give to others will allow you to have more clarity. By assessing where you’re at, you will be better able to look for solutions or consider if there are activities you may need to start or stop doing. Keep your overall well-being at the forefront.

Messages we’ve internalized throughout our lives may discourage prioritizing our well-being over others’. Remember, however, that you have to first help yourself before you can be effective at nurturing others. This is why flight attendants tell us to put our own oxygen mask on before helping put it on another. We must take the matter into our own hands and focus on what is within our control. It is not selfish; it is self-preservation for the sake of our well-being and that of others.

In the next blog post, I will explore what happens when caring about others hurts. When witnessing tremendous suffering can lead beyond burnout and into compassion fatigue.