Climate disasters, power-hungry narcissists, fake news, identity theft, rising food prices … Has a sense of overwhelm begun to permeate as you scroll through your feed? Do you feel a certain weariness around caring? If so, you are not alone; compassion fatigue has worsened for many people post-pandemic, leading to sleep difficulty, irritability, and numbing. Many of us are at the point of “Who cares?”
Yet more than ever, faced with existential challenges, we need people who can care deeply and act. What is going on, and what can we do?
It’s vulnerable to care.
When we care, we allow ourselves to feel our desire for something to be a certain way. But as soon as we feel our longing, reality confronts us with our limits. We cannot 100 percent secure any outcome. Forces outside our will and effort always play a role in how things turn out.
The pandemic was a clear example of how our lives, indeed our world, can be upended by something as small as a virus. Certainty is a fantasy and striving for ultimate control is a strategy to deny our limits. We are indeed only human.
Faced with the pain of caring without having control, some people go into worry mode where conscious anxiety spikes and they run scary movies. But many others do not consciously feel anxious. Instead, they escape what they feel. They numb out and avoid the inner experience. And the trigger is unrest.
Is your alarm waking you or are you pressing snooze?
In my book, Embracing Unrest: Harness Vulnerability to Tame Anxiety and Spark Growth I share the key to transforming experience avoidance. Unrest is a valuable alarm inside all of us, meant to get our attention at the optimal moment for growth. When we are vulnerable, unrest speeds our breathing, tightens our muscles, and agitates our nervous system.
But there’s a catch: Unrest only works as a wake-up call if we perceive it accurately. If we do not, unrest ejects us from our inner experience. It signals us through the sympathetic nervous system and is physiologically indistinguishable from fear. If we don’t recognize the growth-promoting purpose of unrest, the alarm meant to wake us and bring us into the moment will make us shut down and press snooze on our inner lives.
We have a choice: Approach or avoid.
Unrest is a phone call letting us know we are on the cusp of a growth moment, and we need to learn our unique ringtone. We need to become aware of body sensations letting us know we’re faced with longing and limits. Even though we’re wired to avoid anything that feels like fear, unrest is a call to come home and feel in the body. We have a choice: Approach or avoid.
When we tune into those uncomfortable sensations with precision, we can soothe our nervous system. Through slowing down and really feeling our held breath and tense muscles we send a message to the body that it is not in danger. This nervous system activation is not an immediate threat to life and limb. It’s simply unrest heralding emotion, inviting us to come home and feel.
Doing what we can with what we have.
Feelings are energy meant to motivate and empower us so we can adapt to reality. We are meant to be able to accept our limits without collapsing in despair and going numb. We are meant to be able to move from the anger and grief of not being able to make things as we wish, to the place of doing what we can with what we have.
When we face our human limits, we come out the other side with the energy to care and act. We matter and feel how others matter. We feel more alive and connected. Even though we do not have ultimate control, we can still care. And that matters.
Brown, Brene (2015). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead. New York: Avery.
Santomauro, D.F., Mantilla Herrera, A.M., et al (2021). Global prevalence and burden of depressive and anxiety disorders in 204 countries and territories in 2020 due to the COVID-19 epidemic. The Lancet, 398(10312), 1700-1712