Onilien - The Hidden Cost of Empathy

A View from the Sidelines: The Hidden Cost of Empathy

Anyone experiencing psychological distress may tell you that they feel like a dark cloud is lingering over them, where every day feels overwhelming, dominated, or they may not be able to communicate their feelings at all.  They are very much in it, breathing it, living the oppression.

But what happens when you are the person who has a view from the sidelines; the partner, the parent, sibling, friend or pseudo carer.  The often ‘forgotten’.  And I use the term ‘forgotten’ not for dramatic effect or to suggest it is an intentional act – it can happen as a result of supporting someone whose psychological distress is more obvious in that moment.  It is these stories that we seldom hear, and this is why I have decided to tell you mine.

My Story

Writing this article has driven me to recall memories that I have intentionally disconnected from to allow me to function in the present.  As I tip tap on the keys of my laptop, capturing feelings into words, I can feel a churning in the pit of my stomach and a tightening in my shoulders.  The physical effects of stress and anxiety can also be felt by those supporting someone with mental health issues.  The basics of sleeping and eating had become onerous and I remember my body physically aching – every part of me hurt. 

And whilst two of the most loved people in my life were experiencing breakdowns, this was something that I was adamant could not happen to me, and my whole being fought for this to be a reality. I felt like I had to be ‘on’ at all times.  Turning up to social events with a forced smile and vacant eyes, writing endless notes and to-do lists making sure not to forget birthdays, school events and other trivial life admin.  I was hyperfunctioning, masking any difficult feelings that I may have been experiencing so as not to alarm those around me – especially parents who were struggling to understand mental health issues. 

I realise now that I had also become an educator for my parents and in-laws who did not understand ‘mental health issues’.  It was like teaching them a new language and they were stumbling around trying to make sense of it all, looking to me for some sense of explanation.  I fielded phone calls from other worried friends and family who had noticed a change in these individuals and were calling to ‘check in’ or to find out more about what was happening.  I was surrounded with concerned people, expressing their worries and fears and I ended up carrying it all.


The Domino Effect

I felt loneliness intensely; it was heavy and followed me everywhere, even when I was in a room full of people. I felt somewhat disconnected, not only among others but from myself also. On reflection, this may have been due to the distance I’d created between how I was feeling and the way I was presenting outwardly. 

Not that I was aware of this at the time but, having now processed my own struggles with a therapist, I’ve been able to connect with the feelings of grief and loss. My relationship with these two key individuals in my life had been thrown into chaos, I wasn’t sure of my place in either of these relationships and it was causing me to feel disconcerted.    

When I felt helpless and not sure of what I could do, I tried to fix and smooth over the issues being experienced by my loved ones.  I couldn’t sit with their pain and thought that I could take it away by carrying it for them – by offering solutions, doing things for them which I now realise may not have been in their best interests. 

I constantly reiterated to myself that I was not the one struggling and therefore, I had no business acknowledging to myself, let alone others, the difficult emotions I was feeling. I also worried about being perceived as ‘attention seeking’.  By stitching my lips shut, I would not allow my worries to be known and I held them within, recycling them into physical ailments and pain.

What I Wish I’d Known or Done

  • Gone outward rather than inward – but even a step before this, being able to shine a light and acknowledge how I was feeling to myself. I wish that I could have allowed others to see me rather than hiding behind the elaborate mask that I had created.  I felt like I had been forgotten but, in all honesty, I had abandoned myself. 
  • Put on my own oxygen mask before trying to save others. Self-care is a word that gets mentioned all the time in the realm of mental health and this doesn’t always equate to sitting in a hot bath surrounded by candles. I wished that I’d recognised the physical signs of anxiety/stress in myself and been able to adopt tools and techniques to be able to cope better. For example, journaling, eating regular meals and sleep hygiene. 
  • Ditched the saviour complex. I wish I’d known that it was not my place to be a life raft for people, and that by gracing them with space to be and feel can support their independence. I learned with the help of a professional where my responsibilities started and ended – a boundary that I had not always known. I have a better understanding of when I need to step away and am okay with that. 
  • Sought therapy sooner. Being able to speak to an individual disconnected from my own social circle, unbiased and non-judgemental, was freeing.  A space that that was for me to focus on myself, where I could let the mask slide and be seen.

Writing this article has been difficult, often painful at times, but nonetheless cathartic.  It has allowed me the opportunity to ‘go outward,’ and be seen – thank you for being with me, in my thoughts and feelings. I hope my story goes someway to allow for healing and reflection. Whilst the full stop at the end of this paragraph marks the end of this article, I acknowledge that this may not be the end of your journey as a caregiver/support for someone experiencing mental distress. Please know this, you are not forgotten, I see you.  


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Cookie Consent with Real Cookie Banner