The Compassion Syndrome
Prevention Magazine . September, 2004
Contrary to instinct, doing for others isn’t always healthy — for them or you.
When I was 40-something, our two sons were in the throes of their surly, rebellious teenage years, and my elderly mother was seriously ill. I was the filling in this parent-child sandwich—and my husband needed an occasional bite, as well. Meanwhile, I was in charge of research for a Boston hospital’s division of behavioral medicine and personally cared for more than 50 patients a week. Like many women stretched between the needs of kids and elderly parents, I was almost ready to snap. So why was I fantasizing about getting pregnant one last time before my eggs got too old?
I had to wait a decade for the surprising answer, but now it comes from a new look at how women cope with stress. When the going gets rough, women respond with a “tend and befriend” response, says UCLA psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, author of The Tending Instinct. Tending, which is a hands-on style of nurturing, not only benefits others but also helps preserve the species in times of war and disaster—and helps women chill out. Herein lies the major tension in a woman’s life.
We are compassionate both by nature and hormonal design, and we reduce our stress through caring for others. But pushed to an extreme, tending becomes its own source of stress, and we get overwhelmed.
The signs of imminent collapse are obvious. First, you begin ignoring your own needs in favor of the needs of others. Let’s say that every fiber in your being is lobbying to go out and walk in nature, but your 12-year-old is badgering you to take her to the mall. You do—knowing that you’ve just sold yourself out. That leads to the next sign of trouble. You start feeling irritable and resentful of the very people you’re trying so hard to care for. That’s when you catch yourself stomping around the house and mumbling, “Doesn’t anybody else ever empty the dishwasher around here?” Why should they? They have you. Finally, used up and stressed-out, you crash. This may mean getting sick, having an emotional meltdown, or just losing motivation and feeling empty inside.
I’ve thought a lot about why women so commonly ignore their own needs and put others first. A study by UCLA psychologist Rena Repetti, PhD, sheds light on that question. She investigated how men and women manage stress while juggling the dual demands of family and career. Her approach involved asking working parents and their children about daily events. It turns out that stress at work makes for crabby, nit-picking dads. But moms who have bad days at the office spend more time with their children and are more attentive to their needs. In other words, under stress, women—and not just mothers—have the instinct to tend.
The reasons why we tend are chemical. Tending releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes women feel peaceful, calm, and centered. When I was in the stressful sandwich years, my brain was craving a sustained source of calming oxytocin—thus the fantasies about having another child. Fortunately, reason prevailed. We got a dog instead.
The second hazard of tending is mistaking codependency for compassion. Rather than letting people learn from the consequences of their actions, codependents often try to save the day. A woman in a relationship with an addict, for instance, may cover up her partner’s bad behavior. But you don’t have to have an addict in your life to fall into the toxic tending trap. Trying to improve an errant child’s school performance by doing his homework and making excuses for a flaky friend when she is late ultimately hurts their growth. Failing a class because work isn’t turned in is an important lesson in responsibility. And learning to get away with laziness because someone else picks up the slack is a setup for a life of failure.
The solution to all of this is staying mindful of your compassionate nature, noticing when you’ve gone overboard, and then being able to quickly make a midcourse correction. This is not selfish. It’s wise. As natural nurturers, women need to develop the discernment and strength to know when helping is healthy and when it disempowers. Here are some tips to help you know the difference.
Let competent people take care of themselves.
Help out only when they really need you; it empowers them and gives you a break. For example, don’t routinely clean your elderly mother’s home if she can do it herself. Even if she can’t do it all, let her do what she can. She’ll live a longer and healthier life. The same reasoning applies to doing chores for your kids and spouse. Unless you’re a saint, you’ll end up embittered and resentful. That’s not the stuff that love is made of. And nurturing releases a bonding hormone in men, too; it’s called vasopressin. So, tending and befriending can be just as good for guys.
Make compassion a family affair.
Helping is good for your health as well as your community, and it develops solid values for kids. Young children love to be involved in service projects. Talk with your family about how you can get involved in one, even if it’s only once a month. You might volunteer to feed the homeless, collect clothing for children overseas, visit residents in a nursing home, or stuff envelopes for a charity.
Find time for close friends.
Tending is only part of how women reduce their stress. Being with friends is the other half of the equation. A good friend will let you know when you’re overdoing it, pass the tissues when you’ve overdone, and love you anyway. This is why friendship—real befriending—is the antidote to too much tending.