Lessons Learned Watching my Mother Burnout

I grew up watching my mother caring for others to the point that she often neglected her own emotional, physical, and spiritual health. Like many caregivers, she had unrealistic expectations and placed unreasonable demands upon herself, saw providing care as her exclusive responsibility, and expected her involvement to always have a positive effect (Mikolajczak et al, 2018). When she took on the role of caring for my grandfather, suffering from Alzheimer’s, it put an enormous amount of strain on her. She was unrealistic about our loved one’s progressive disease, and how much she could really do to help. She had a fully-formed philosophical character excellence of ‘open-handedness’, though she had not mastered ‘moderation’ (Jungers & Gregories, 2013, pp.174). Trying to balance her caretaking role with other duties often left her frustrated, and as much as she loved my grandfather, she sometimes experienced feelings of disdain for the responsibility. Soon, she had all the symptoms of burnout: fatigue, stress, anxiety, and depression (Mikolajczak et al, 2018).

I watched her slowly spiral downward over a series of months that threw so much at her that all she could do was stand there and take it. It was like watching a spider struggle against the spray of a hose. When the pressure temporarily ceased, she used all she had to get back on her feet. About the time she was finally standing again, the second round of spray hit, taking her back down. This went on until she succumbed, as a spider would to the water pressure of the hose – losing all will to fight; no longer interested in weathering the storm. Emotionally and physically depleted, she denounced in defeat: ‘I am no Mother Teresa!’ Ironically, even Mother Teresa herself realised that we cannot give what we do not have, saying that ‘to keep a lamp burning we have to keep putting oil in it’ (Vardey, 2016). Another (tragic) irony was the counterproductive nature of my mother’s attempts at being there for everyone to the expense of herself. She was left irritable, hopeless, overwhelmed and withdrawn – unable to truly be there for anyone. 

Analysis & Future Learning

It is normal for caregivers to experience feelings of frustration or burnout after extended periods of not managing their own self-care (Mikolajczak et al, 2018). An accumulation of years, months, and weeks of being too busy caring for others can leave a person disconnected from themselves; unable to recognize the signs of their stress reaching critical levels. Part of sustaining myself for the journey as a counsellor will likely involve similar challenges I watched my mother face. Seeing the connection between how her unexamined areas influenced her caretaking process further accentuates that taking care of oneself is not a luxury; but an absolute necessity if the aim is to be an effective caregiver (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013, pp.191). 


Aristotle believed that knowing oneself was the beginning of all wisdom (Roberts, 2004). Knowing myself (growing in self-awareness) will allow me to better adapt and grow into my role as a caregiver. The more I can adapt and grow, the better I can be at helping others do the same. Self-awareness can occur through identifying and reflecting on my values and strengths, what influences my decisions and whether my attitude and mind-set is serving me or holding me back (Karlsson, 2018). It may also involve understanding the choices I make, without feeling guilty or ashamed if I fall short of my ideal or need to ask for help. Additionally, I can embrace opportunities for continuous education (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2001). The process of looking deep into myself is often a confronting and challenging one (Karlsson, 2018). However, the more self-awareness I have, the more I am able to help my future clients know themselves and aspirationally grow.


Self-development is at the heart of ethical counselling (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013, pp.191; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2001). Being an avid reader of everything I can lay my hands on in the personal development space, I am constantly inspired to improve my life. This will continue throughout my professional career, where I will eventually have the additional support of supervision (Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2001).

Personal strategies for self-care

It will be crucial for me to identify personal strategies for self-care and take measures to build environments that contribute to professional sustenance – valuing my own wellness in order to cultivate wellness for my clients (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013, pp.174-177). I will need to recognize and accept my potential for caregiver burnout and find ways to manage stress (like healthy eating and getting plenty of sleep and exercise, setting realistic goals, and accepting that I may need help with caregiving from time-to-time). I will need to begin from now to build a support team of confidants who uplift me on my journey and help me process feelings and frustrations that can come from being a caregiver. I will need to be aware of my limits and reach out to others (especially those with direct experience in my area of struggle), recognising this is not a weakness – but a strength. 

It is ethically important to ensure one’s competence through continuously understanding, developing and nurturing oneself in order to best help those we work with as caregivers (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013, pp. 173; Rønnestad & Skovholt, 2001). Evidently, to be and to become an ethical helper who embodies excellence is a lifelong work forged by the reciprocal interaction among my own personal life choices, professional experiences and decisions, and reflection on both (Jungers & Gregorie, 2013, pp.174). 


Jungers, C. M., & Gregoire, C. M. (2013). Counselling ethics: Philosophical and professional foundations (Ch. 8). Springer Publishing Company, LLC.

Karlsson, C. (2018). Your Dream Life Starts Here: Essential and Simple Steps to Creating the Life of Your Dreams. Kikki.K: Hung Hing Off-set Printing Co. 

Mikolajczak, M., Raes, M. E., Avalosse, H., Roskam, I. (2018). Exhausted Parents: 

Sociodemographic, Child-Related, Parent Related, Parenting and Family-Functioning Correlates of Parental Burnout. Journal of Child and Family Studies. DOI 10.1007/s10826-017-0892-4 

Roberts, W., R. (2004). Aristotle: Rhetoric. Dover Thrift Publications

Rønnestad, M. H., & Skovholt, T. M. (2001). Learning arenas for professional development: 

Retrospective accounts of senior psychotherapists. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 32(2), 181–187. https://doi.org/10.1037/0735-7028.32.2.181 

Vardey, L. A. (2016). Simple Path: The bestselling classic on how to help others and find 

peace by Mother Teresa. Rider & Co Publishers.

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