Selfless, a term that has been used to describe the military community for decades, but especially since the creation of an all volunteer force.
While culturally celebrated, an unrealistic ideal is normalized with the ideology that we as military families are inherently selfless. An honest question emerges in relation to this ideal- is it possible that by perpetuating the idea that service members and their spouses are selfless, that the gap between ideal and real experiences creates an incubator for anxiety, depression, and addiction?
The literal definition of the word means, “having little or no concern for oneself.” Romanized narratives paint a picture of service members and their families that are more than willing to sacrifice all things at all times for the public good. But these stories can be harmful. We tend to forget that anyone who has ever sacrificed for country or for family, lived first. When it comes to military spouses giving too much too often, the result is a recipe for compassion fatigue.
Compassion fatigue is described as the gradual emotional and physical exhaustion that caregivers, service related professionals and helping professionals are susceptible to developing over the course of their careers (and yes caregiving is a career). Compassion fatigue is best explained as an erosion of empathy, a hindrance to our ability to tolerate distress in others, and loss of compassion for others and ourselves. Common symptoms of those experiencing compassion fatigue include loss of enjoyment, apathy, resentment toward those you serve and yourself, irritability, hopelessness, lack of purpose, overwhelm, intrusive thoughts and isolation.
It’s tempting to throw the one phrase fix all solution, “self care,” as means to remedy compassion fatigue, but the antidote goes far beyond the modern conceptualization of the term. As humans we function on a metaphorical gas tank. This tank fuels our abilities to perform and complete the tasks our heart and mind have deemed worthy of our energy. The problem is that military spouses aren’t deeming themselves worthy of being on that list of priorities. When military spouses have no compassion for themselves, they are unable to give compassion to others. The solution to combat compassion fatigue is multi-dimensional and begins with acknowledging the inconsistencies in three prominent messages we have accepted as truth.
SELFLESSNESS AND SELFISHNESS ARE NOT THE ONLY OPTIONS.
First and foremost we have to push against the message that selflessness is an applaudable character trait in all circumstances. For too long we’ve accepted that there are two options, selflessness (the lack of consideration for ourselves,) and selfishness (the lack of consideration for others). What we fail to recognize however is that selflessness often leads to resentment toward others, quite the antithesis of compassion.
Selflessness is often a result of perfectionism, or a “what will they think,” mentality, and we practice it not because we want to, but because we’ve internalized that we are “supposed.” Self acknowledgement and awareness comprise the middle path. Pushing against notions that taking care of ourselves is the less noble practice to engage in is essential to combating compassion fatigue.
ASPIRING FOR ACHIEVEMENT OUTSIDE OF OUR ROLES AS A MILITARY SPOUSES AND CAREGIVERS IS NOT SELFISH.
For a population of people who have been publicly described for decades as self-sacrificing, aspiring for goals and dreams that are self interested can trigger feelings of shame. Dr. Julie de Azevedo Hanks describes aspirational shame as the feeling that desires for achievement outside of cultural norms are assumed to be related to a flawed self. In other words shame can occur when our desires to achieve outside of our military spouse, or caregiver roles are realized.
Aspirational shame, when left unchecked, can result in dismissing our dreams and goals, not pursuing careers or education, failure to acknowledge our own suffering and health, and significant pressure to be fully immersed in our roles as spouses and parents. Understanding that we are our best selves when we are acknowledging our own needs enables us to guard ourselves against compassion fatigue.
SELF-COMPASSION IS NOT SELF INDULGENCE.
In a world starving for more compassion, the antidote is not to simply buy into the ideology that we should disregard our own needs in order to care for others. Rather, the opposite true, in order to truly suffer with others we have to acknowledge our own suffering. Dr. Kristin Neff identifies that self-compassion is compiled of three major practices which include:
- Self Kindness: the practice of accepting that life difficulties are inevitable and being gentle with ourselves is necessary for contronting painful experiences rather than getting angry when life fails to measure up to ideals.
- Common Humanity: The view that suffering is a human experience and something that connects us all together.
- Mindfulness: Taking a balanced approach when we are experiencing negative emotions is necessary so that feelings are never suppressed or exaggerated. We cannot ignore our own suffering and simultaneously practice non judgment as we witness it in others.
Combating compassion fatigue begins with awareness. In order to change reality we have to accept where we are and what is happening. As military spouses we are more likely than our civilian counterparts to experience mood and anxiety disorders. Acknowledging our suffering is the first step working toward solutions. Most of all we have to start by being self-aware and brave enough to vocally identify the unrealistic messages that are keeping us stuck in the unhealthy cycles of compassion fatigue.