So You Feel Burnt-Out; Now What?

2016 March 8

The favorite pastime in contemporary culture isn’t basketball, football, hockey, soccer, or baseball.  The favorite pastime is looking forward. Everyone looks ahead to something or someone.  A vacation. A graduation. A holiday. A three-day weekend. An end to 12-hour workdays.  The end of winter. The beginning of spring. The premiere of your favorite television show. The start of a new job.

The only people who don’t look ahead the same way others do are people like you and me who care or have cared for someone who isn’t necessarily getting better. It’s not that caregivers don’t want to look ahead as much as we just don’t think we can.  We believe looking ahead is reserved for people who take the present for granted.  People who have no reason to question that tomorrow will be the same as today.

So it’s no surprise that when most others look forward, they gaze months and even years into the future whereas you and me, our hopes dare not travel beyond the moment. Too often, we don’t allow ourselves to look ahead because we mistakenly believe that doing so will only disorient us. But we are wrong. We must create something to look forward to today in order to reduce burnout—an occupational hazard of caring for another human being.

Experiencing burnout is not a matter of if, simply a matter of when. But we can reduce the intensity of caregiver burnout if we allow ourselves the luxury of looking forward. I’m not talking about looking forward in the way others look forward to vacations or travels around the world. No, our looking forward has to be different even though it serves a similar purpose—helping us through the rough patches of the every day when our bodies are exhausted, our hearts are heavy, and our will is seemingly depleted. To reduce the intensity of caregiver burnout, here are some tips every caregiver should keep in mind:

  • Looking forward should extend no more than 24 hours into the future As caregivers, we know so much about the fragility of life that to look forward to anything beyond 24 hours would be too much for us to believe. But looking forward can mean an hour later, or a quiet lunch or a phone call with a friend later in the evening. Looking forward doesn’t need to catapult you years into the future, rather looking forward can only help to remind us that life—today—can be valued and appreciated and savored. More than most, we need to mark our time, not simply by the passing of a calendar day but by the enjoyment of a tangible goal or reward.


  • Look forward to the small stuff. This may be the most difficult rule to follow. We’ve been trained our entire lives to believe that we should only look forward to big things: weddings, birthdays, holidays, family reunions, etc. Cross those thoughts out of your mind. As a caregiver, you have to constantly remind yourself that the small stuff is worthy of looking forward to, like watching the sunset, or taking a long shower, or going for a walk, or getting a hair cut. Looking forward to big events inspires others to ignore their every day, looking forward to the small stuff helps us find value and appreciation in our every day.


  • Mark your small stuff in your calendar. Now. Yes, I mean physically type it in your phone or mark it in your daily calendar. Be as specific as you can. Ambiguity is your enemy.  Mark your small stuff in your calendar with the very same details you would when marking anything else in your calendar: the amount of time necessary to fulfill your small-stuff experience, where, with whom, the time of day it will begin.  If you don’t mark everyday meaning in your daily calendar, it won’t exist. And if it’s not in your calendar, you won’t make the time to make you and important part of your day’s goals.


  • Make your needs sacred. Stop treating your own needs as if they are optional yet treating others’ needs as necessary. Our needs are as real as others even though it sometimes feels like it’s much easier to say yes to others’ needs and no to our own. As caregivers, the small-stuff that we look forward to must be treated as sacred or we will deny ourselves the opportunity to experience these often overlooked but essential moments of joy that allow us to sustain our caregiving identity.

For most others in contemporary life, meaning markers are built into their lives—holidays, weekends, time-off. For caregivers, however, there are no markers that will tell us when and how to mark our time. If we plan to embody an identity that sustains care through our loved one’s most challenging of times, we must have a plan to sustain ourselves as well. If we deny ourselves the opportunity to indulge in the sacred moments of the every day, then we will be less able to give of ourselves to the very person we care for.

7 Responses leave one →
  1. March 9, 2016

    Beautiful. A line from a homeless person I quoted in my blog recently: “You can live without money, but you can’t live without plans.”

  2. March 9, 2016

    I have never read anything so spot on in all my life. It addresses in so many words why I cannot look forward to being a grandmother, or growing old with the man who has held my heart these last 34 years, or even when I put the Christmas decorations away, will he be by my side when I take them out again. The present must be our future. It is a lesson learned with many tears. Thank you. Thank you.

  3. March 10, 2016

    Thanks for your heartfelt comments and words of wisdom.

  4. March 10, 2016

    So true, Donna. So true! Donna’s ongoing insights and expertise can be found at:

  5. March 16, 2016

    I have tried to explain this to people: “The only people who don’t look ahead the same way others do are people like you and me who care or have cared for someone who isn’t necessarily getting better. It’s not that caregivers don’t want to look ahead as much as we just don’t think we can.”

    Thank you for validating it for me!

  6. Trish permalink
    May 24, 2017

    There is also the guilt involved; when we look at a future without the demands of caregiving, it comes at the expense of losing our loved one. We want our time and freedoms back but to want that seems like we are wishing for them to be gone. Guilt is a subversive creature, making every small want seem obscenely selfish.

  7. May 24, 2017

    Wonderfully put, Trish.

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