Nurturing the “Third Shifters”: Helping Ourselves to Help Others

Sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Women, in particular, are caught in what is referred to as the “third shift”: the balancing of family household responsibilities, employment, and informal (i.e., non-paid) caregiving to aging parents, in-laws, or family members living with a chronic medical or mental illness, or disability. The need to care for an older family member or friend is not limited by culture or geography - in fact, the global population of persons aged 60 years and above is estimated to reach an expected 2 billion in 2050. Rather, caregiving is universal. From an evolutionary perspective, the act of providing care to another has been argued to be a critical component in our ability to thrive as a human species. At the micro level, caregiving is considered to be rewarding, though at times it can also be burdensome. Many caregivers receive fulfillment through the act of caring for others – in both informal and formal (i.e., paid employment) settings – but there can be a cost associated with caring for others, and particularly for “third-shifters.” The constant outpouring of care can take a negative toll on physical and mental wellbeing,
and if ignored, can lead to compassion fatigue.

The term compassion fatigue was first introduced in the early 1990s in response to the harmful and accumulative physiological and psychological effects reported by formal caregivers such as nurses and those working in the helping professions. Over the past two decades, studies have shown that caregivers – both formal (i.e., paid professionals) and informal (i.e., family members, friends) – can fall prey to high levels of compassion fatigue. Several of the “costs”
associated with caregiving – specifically, the act of alleviating the suffering of others through action – include increased stress and decreased life satisfaction. When unidentified, compassion fatigue can erode our ability to experience joy, love, and contentment in all areas of our lives. Additionally, denial of the presence of signs and symptoms of compassion fatigue, may force people to turn to maladaptive methods of coping such as engaging in substance use/abuse, gambling, overspending, and other “avoidant” behaviours. The first step to combating compassion fatigue is to recognise the signs in yourself or in another caregiver.

According to the Compassion Fatigue Awareness Project (, normal symptoms include the following:
  • Excessive blaming
  • Keeping emotions bottled-up
  • Isolation from others
  • Receiving increased and unusual amount of complaints from others
  • Substance abuse
  • Compulsive behaviours such as overspending,
  • overeating, gambling, and sexual addictions
  • Poor or compromised self-care
  • Legal problems
  • Chronic physical ailments such as stomach pains and recurrent colds
  • Sadness, apathy, no longer finding activities pleasurable
  • Difficulty with concentration and attention
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Denial that a problem exists
To answer that question, there are two key ingredients that are critical on the path to healing: self-awareness and resilience. Resilience is defined as:
  1. the ability of something to return to its original shape after it has been pulled, stretched, bent, or pressed (picture a rubber band), and
  2. the ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.
"self-awareness allows for us to have control over our current state"

While resilience may be innate for most people, it can also be developed and trained through self-awareness and self-care. Self-awareness involves conscious awareness (of how tired or alert you are in any given moment) or attunement to the body, mind, emotions, and spirit to allow for the simultaneous ability to care for oneself while providing care to another. Bodily awareness is equally important: when left unattended, our physical health will progressively decline as a result of the negative effects associated with chronic stress, further debilitating our wellness in the long term. Most importantly, self-awareness allows for us to have control over our current state. To illustrate this point, try the following exercise:
Sit down and bring to awareness your pulse, breathing rate, and muscle tension. Hold your breath for 10 seconds, and exhale loudly with force. Do this several times before returning to your normal breathing. As you breathe normally, smile naturally. By gaining control over your innermost responses, you will act more positively and feel good about yourself. The next time a stressful event occurs, become aware if you are anxious or irritated and practise this “control test.”

When it comes to taking care of ourselves, prevention is critical. Often, we frantically rush into self-care mode when faced with some type of emotional, relational, or physical crisis. Wouldn’t life be easier if we did not have to care for ourselves as a direct result of a personal crisis? How would it feel to perform one small act of self-kindness on a daily basis to recharge your batteries? What is the potential long-term positive impact that a self-care practice could make on your life?

Take a moment: A self-care reflection exercise
  1. Using a pen and piece of paper, write down one “mini-escape” or diversion that revitalises and reinvigorates you (for example: taking a yoga class, enjoying a picnic with family, an early morning walk).
  2. List one thing that brings you joy.
  3. Ask yourself, “When was the last time I did that thing?”
  4.  Then, “What gets in the way of me doing it more often?”
  5. Now, consider the following: What are your personal triggers that signal it is time to “recharge your battery?”
Similar to developing any new habit or new skill, building a self-care practice takes effort, intention, and repetition. Equally important is our ability to apply self-compassion when we “slip” or ignore important warning signs indicating trouble ahead. When that happens, gently bring yourself back to awareness and start again. Lastly, one of the most effective ways of preventing and healing from compassion fatigue is exercising your ability to talk about it with someone else. But, who you talk with is of critical importance. The listener must be someone who can relate to your situation, can be present without interfering with your talking process, who does not “one-up” you or switch to their story, and who can honour your confidentiality. Your significant other may not be the right person! If you do not have a trusted listener in mind, you might consider contacting a mental health professional for counselling services.
When starting a self-care practice, remember the Chinese proverb, “Dig where the ground is soft.” In other words, try to avoid your trickiest areas to fix, and pick the area that you can most easily visualise change or improvement in. For instance, you might commit to going for a walk during your lunch hour rather than trying to get rid of a difficult supervisor at work.
Other useful tips
Taking stock of what is on your plate:
  • Create a list of all the demands on your time and energy.
  • Look at your list carefully and observe what stands out.
  • What factors contribute to the overflowing of your plate? Brainstorm ideas of “letting go”with a friend. Sometimes we cannot see the forest for the trees!
Start a self-care collection
  • Ask friends what they do for self-care and begin creating your own list – you may learn new things through the process.
  • Find time for yourself everyday – reclaim your weekend with meaningful and enjoyable activities.
Delegate your workload at the office and at home
Create a transition between work and home
Examples may include listening to upbeat or relaxing music during your commute; changing from your work clothes into comfortable clothing when arriving at home; packing your walking shoes and taking a short stroll before setting foot in your home.

Providing compassionate care to others requires us to turn our compassion inward as well. Through selfawareness and consistent mindfulness of our inner processes, we can continue meeting the needs of others with great joy and reward. PRIME

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