Caregiving: A Few Words about Mirrors

by Mitch Radin, Clinical Psychologist

caregivingThis might sound like a cynical statement, but it’s not: caregiving hurts.  Here’s why: We have things in our brains called mirror neurons.  Simply put, neurons in our brain fire when we perform an action, but they also fire when we watch someone perform an action, mirroring what we are observing.  This means that as caregivers, professionally or in our personal lives, we have the potential to experience real pain or distress while being witness to pain and distress in the people we support.

But pain is just a signal passed through the neural pathways in our bodies.  The meaning we make of those signals, however, is the critical juncture where pain can turn into suffering.   How carefully we think about and assign meaning to the pain that we experience is critical to the job of helping others.  The work of caregiving has an insidious impact if we aren’t paying attention.

It is imperative that we move away from the traditional model of caregiving in which objectivity rules our interpretation of our work, as if we aren’t supposed to have honest thoughts or feelings about what we are witness to.  We know that attempting to be wholly objective is ineffective for developing and maintaining resiliency, as it puts us in a space of secrecy, where shame about “not being able to handle it” promotes feelings of isolation, fear, and exile from our peers.  We feel we aren’t supposed to be impacted.  It is possible to be a healthy caregiver if we are paying attention to our true thoughts and feelings, and getting appropriate support.

The new paradigm for thinking about caregiving is to take a relational position with the understanding that people are resilient, and pain is an integral part of understanding our experience of ourselves and others.  Nobody is born knowing exactly how to negotiate other people’s pain.  We have the capacity to self-regulate difficult feelings and experiences if we are aware of them, and caregiving is a developmental process that we mature into over time.  As a general rule, the goal is to take personal responsibility for our own health and wellbeing.  In the context of caregiving, we need to pay special attention to those mirror neurons of ours.