Can We Care Too Much?

There was a young psychiatrist who got into the elevator at the end of the day, disheveled and exhausted, as he was every day. In the elevator was an older psychiatrist, looking fresh and whistling a tune. As he did, every day.

The young guy looked at him in astonishment. “How do you do it?” he asked.

“Do what?” the older man replied.

The young man shook his head. “Listen all day, every day, to the terrible stories of pain and loss, of betrayal and death of dreams, of shattered marriages and sexual dysfunction and corruption and broken children. How can you do it?”

The older psychiatrist smiled. “Who listens?”


I made a suggestion that a reader under extreme stress, who felt crippled by it, incorporate a morning ritual to deal with that stress. Among her explanations and disbelief that I would ask such a thing (the depression made it feel impossible to do anything but minimal functions) was the following statement:

“I’d have to be heartless to be in control of my emotions right now.”

Her family was in crisis. She felt overwhelmed. And whatever neurological aspects there might be to the feelings, it was clear that there was also a component of belief that exacerbated the situation.

If you have the belief that your love for your family, or DEMONSTRATING your love for your family DEMANDS that you become disabled with stress…

That belief actually endangers your family.


Our emotions are caused by various physiological and perceptual and attentional feedbacks. And shifting any of them to the negative creates negative results. The difficult mirroring concept is that shifting any of them to the positive creates a positive result — but in the grip of grief and stress it can be impossible to make that shift, and someone sneering “just shake it off!” just causes even more damage. Ugh.

Note the loop that belief creates:

  1. If you care, you will suffer along with them (belief)
  2. If you suffer, you will lose capacity (a theory for observation and testing. Stress creates rigidity, tunnel vision and fatigue)
  3. If you lose capacity you cannot help as much (simple logic and observation)
  4. If you cannot help, suffering will increase.

And…we’re trapped in a negative spiral. Down the drain we go.

So…if you care, and believe you must share their suffering, you may thereby diminish your capacity to help. If you distance yourself, you can objectively help more, but people will accuse you of not caring.

Sometimes you have to make a decision who you are, separate from what people say about who you are.



When my mother was dying, my sister was upset that I wasn’t more upset. I’d even crack somewhat inappropriate jokes.

But…it was deliberate. Calculating. If I let myself really feel what was happening, feel the depths of the crippling, hollowing grief as the core source of love in my life dwindled away, first her body and then her mind…I wouldn’t be able to be there for her, and she needed me to be there EVERY DAY. I was. Every single day. And Joyce wasn’t able to do that: it hurt too much.

So what is more caring? Being there and taking care of business, or sacrificing your own heart to be able to function? It isn’t that I had no heart: it was ripped out of me every damned day. It was that my pain was not more important than serving the woman who brought me into the world.

The truth is that you don’t have to keep a distance: you can also go right into the heart of it. To accept life as it is, suffering and all. To not let your self-pity (“I’m losing her” or more to the point, “I am losing my illusions of immortality”) shut down your function.

Seems to me that this is what Mother Teresa did in finding the “beauty of suffering”. Without finding meaning in it, it would be impossible to function in that context. Absent that perspective, you would either go insane, or stop serving the dying. Is there a thin line between such a perspective and something sociopathic? I can understand someone feeling that way. Now, if M.T. went out and grabbed orphans off the street and blinded them to give her an opportunity to experience that beauty, we have a horror movie, and quite possibly a good one.

Jeeze. That actually is interesting as an internal motivations of a monster: a saint who went off the rails. I wonder if I’ll ever write that..?

Anyway. Caring is great, but if that caring interferes with your ability to function, you may have to bury your emotions to do good. And yes, people who think you should get down in the water and drown with them will criticize people who stand on the dock and throw life preservers.

How to break the cycle of stress? I’ll go back to basics…

  1. Set your smartphone timer for three hours. Every three hours, stop and do deep, slow diaphragmatic belly breathing for 60 seconds. If you are under killing stress, do this every hour.
  2. Begin to expand that first session, focusing on the breathing…and the heartbeat. Center yourself. Slow down. Relax and release.
  3. Focus more deeply on the heartbeat, symbolic of your connection to life and love. Much of our stress is fear. Love is the antidote.
  4. Observe the flow of your thoughts, all the garbage that flows up. On average, it takes 12–15 minutes to calm yourself so that the mind quiets. Under stress, it may well take longer.
  5. Remember that YOU ARE NOT THE VOICES IN YOUR HEAD. You are the one LISTENING to the voices. You are not your grief and fear. You are the one EXPERIENCING grief and fear. Don’t try to shove them away. Just observe, like someone watching logs float down the river.
  6. Your ability to calm with increase and decrease. Some days/times you just won’t have it. But if you continue the practice, you will notice that there are longer and longer moments when you have some distance between emotional waves.
  7. The time to plant a tree is before you need the shade. The best time to begin such a practice is BEFORE you need it. The time you need it will come again, there is 0% possibility you can avoid life stress. Don’t kid yourself. Start NOW.
  8. If you tell yourself you don’t have five minutes a day to start YOU ARE LYING to yourself. Stop lying. This is your ego protecting itself. Remember: it will kill you to stop you from killing it.
  9. When you start finding spaces of calm, start examining your beliefs. Not fighting them, just looking at them. Where PRECISELY did you get them? Do you still, as an adult, believe them appropriate?
  10. If not, commit to changing those beliefs. The precise methods are many, but just realizing YOU NEVER CHOSE IT will diminish its power. Knowing you are NOT the voices in your head diminishes their power. Realizing that fear is natural and not “weak” diminishes its power.

Wake up. Forgive yourself for being human. The people you love need you to be the best you can be. And sometimes that means moving beyond your ordinary sense of self.

You never know how strong you are, until being strong is your only choice” — Bob Marley



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