Experiencing Bandwidth Burnout? Why we may have less energy to care for others

At times we all need a shoulder to lean on and a close confidante to listen to us complain and even cry. In turn, we pride ourselves on being good listeners when our friends and family need us. As journalists, listening comes with the job, and we've honed it through the decades. 

However, at the same time, we're concerned about getting sick, watching the stock market go up and now down, dealing with inflation and the high prices of gas and groceries, the threat of a nuclear confrontation when we grew up in the Cuban missile crisis and a major upcoming midterm election. 

But that's not all. Add to that our own family and closest friends' issues that can swing from minor to tragic. The result is that we only have so much bandwidth to take on others' woes. Of course, we can stretch ourselves more and give time to listen to someone worried about their health issues or concerns of a loved one, a daughter who might have a serious illness or a close friend whose spouse has died. We try to be there for you, but we may not be doing as stellar a job. 

The point is we care deeply about others. However, when those in need become too needy and go on and on about their woes without trying to do anything to get control of their situation, we start to experience listening burnout. "How much more can I listen to this?" we think. And we may get annoyed while not sharing. We try to be compassionate. 

We also wonder: Is this burnout stress related? It's important that when under stress, which Barbara's doctor recently told her is extremely dangerous to both mental and physical health, we need to focus on self-care, which makes sense. 

Perhaps, our bandwidth burnout is age related to a lack of patience. We joke that our patience comes and goes sort of like a love affair. We fall in love and want to stay but that isn't always the case.  However, when we need it, we pull it out of our psychic toolboxes. 

After Barbara broke her arm in three places, she knew it would take hard work and patience to heal. At times, she knew she couldn't listen to others' woes. She had to selfishly protect herself first and get well. The same was true when Barbara was caregiver for her late mother, a "job" she had promised her late father she would always do and did so well many complimented her on being the best daughter ever. She didn't always agree and felt she was often impatient at the most trying times. 

Margaret, who thinks she has little patience in general except when she's tutoring or mentoring young people, had to muster all she could when nursing her husband through a five-year illness. But in that case, Barbara felt she was tough on herself and deserved an A for her constant caring. Patience, we have concluded, is a conscious decision, but it gets tested in the worst cases. 

To avoid bandwidth burnout, here are some tips. 

--Always prioritize. Know what's most important and who's most important. Certain people and situations may let you bend and stretch more than other situations. 

--Set some strong boundaries to preserve energy if you're operating on fumes. Have a time limit if on the phone or a Zoom. (Oh, time is up.) If in person, say up front, "I only have 30 minutes to meet and listen." Explain honestly, "I have a lot on my plate. I'll be more open at another time." There, you've said it and set a firm boundary. Don't waver. 

--Sleep, eat, exercise, walk, read, watch movies or TV, take classes and do anything to keep up health, spirits and routines. Eat certain foods that calm you down such as various teas, asparagus, avocado, blueberries, milk, almonds, oranges, salmon, spinach, dark chocolate. Curtail or avoid too much coffee or wine. 

--Don't get mired in someone else's stuff. Or as a wise therapist told Barbara bluntly about dating a certain high-maintenance person years ago, "Don't take on someone's sh--.". Listen politely. Don't think you have to give suggestions or solve their problems. That really takes up bandwidth. Most likely, the other person doesn't care for your advice. Listen, learn, explain your interest and caring but then leave. 

--Take some time to listen to soothing music. It can be a head cleanser; something to reset and recharge our brains so we can take care of our own business at hand. 

--Try meditation or mindfulness. If you take five or 10 minutes to try this-perhaps while riding the subway to work or flying on an airplane, you can practice this skill and feel refreshed. There are apps for this to help with the process. Barbara likes "Calm." 

--If you feel you're going to have a panic attack listening one more time about someone's awful relative or close friend, breathe. It's a technique to calm you down and allow you the bandwidth to say, "I am so sorry to hear that, but I have to go now." 

--Use humor, if you can, for levity. If appropriate, find the humor in the situation. Perhaps, a person is complaining about memory issues. "I can never remember where I put anything." You've heard her say this dozens of times. So, create a visual of her crawling under beds and tables on the floor when looking for lost items. Joke and say perhaps you left your phone in the washing machine or freezer. 

--Do better time management. You have a lot on your plate and if you sit on the phone and listen to someone's complaining, it takes a big chunk out of your day. Make a list, prioritize time by making a chart, if need be, and include maybe 20 minutes for your aunt who has an issue that you've heard about ad nauseum. 

--Be willing to cut anyone off at the pass at times. Be blunt and say, "I just can't listen to this again right now. I am so sorry." Maybe they'll get the message.... or not. Say it again or even ask them to repeat what you said. 

We can gain control over bandwidth burnout, but it takes time and practice. In doing so, we'll be able to accomplish more for ourselves and for those who need us most. It means we'll be happier, easier to be around, help others more and probably live healthier, longer and more fulfilled lives. We're available but at some times not as much as at others.

1 comment

  • Audrey Steuer

    This is one of your very best!! So, personal to me and the past 25 years of my life in terms of parental care. I wish I was far better at cutting of friends who complain endlessly about the same thing and don’t take my advice even when it comes from my own experience! All the best for a less stressful 2023!

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