“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about how much time you’re sacrificing with kids.”

My good friend and colleague was referring to something I had been feeling for a while– that I spend a lot of my non-instructional time in conversation with young adults who need to vent, problem solve, or just talk about their life stresses.

Before school.

During lunch.

After school.

Sometimes cutting into my planning time.

I’ve made progress on setting boundaries around time I spend grading and planning, but hearing these words from a friend I respect — who knows me better than just about any other colleague — was a wake up call that I had more work to do.

But they need help navigating life! But I might be the only stable adult in this kid’s life! I could hear my thoughts grasping for the usual justifications that accompany the “Teacher as Savior” myth.

I had to own it though: I was letting my heart for helping kids lead me into an empathy trap. I’ve written extensively about empathy in The Burnout Cure — how compassionate empathy helps us overcome empathy gaps — strengthening our relationships, boosting our well-being, and improving our students’ experience in school.

But the other end of the continuum can be just as detrimental to our well-being: Empathy traps — letting ourselves invest so deeply in others that we experience compassion fatigue or sacrifice our time, our thoughts, our equanimity.

This is Bleeding Heart Syndrome: Caring so deeply about the overall well-being of others that we compromise our own well-being.

I’ve come a long way in reducing my burnout, but bleeding heart syndrome is still a work in process. Here’s what I’m learning.

Causes

We develop bleeding heart syndrome for many reasons, but here are three major ones:

  • Savior-Myth Media

Try this memory salience activity: Think about the teachers you’ve seen in movies and media. Of the ones that stand out, which of them were:

a) Villains

b) Demigods

c) Tragic heroes

d) Normal, relatable humans

Of the ones who come to mind, were they primarily shown:

a) Teaching content

b) Taking extra vested interest in students’ lives/counseling beyond the classroom

My guess is that the most salient memories were tragic heroes and demigods who sacrificed beyond the classroom.

For reference, here’s what pops up when you Google “movies about teachers”

When we envision what it means to be a “great teacher” we often think about going above and beyond — tirelessly — to help students. We think about dramatized outliers who make us feel lesser-than if we aren’t sacrificing everything. This can become compounded by:

  • Guilt

Even if we don’t think of ourselves as dramatized Freedom Minders and Dead Poet Rockers, we often feel guilty if we don’t go beyond the norm to help students — especially ones who really need something extra. Should’ves and could’ves can push us to overcompensate our regrets by deepening the desire to sacrifice.

  • Affirmation Craving

The thank you notes I receive from past students and parents are almost all about how I went “above and beyond.” I love those notes. I latch onto those notes on hard days. But this can turn to a dependence. It’s hard to know one’s impact in teaching — at least beyond what data can show. As humans, then, we crave knowing that our actions matter. When we mix that craving with evidence that our energy beyond the classroom made a difference we sometimes prioritize sacrifice over self-care.

Symptoms

Consider to what extent you would agree or relate to these super-non-scientific statements:

  • I prioritize counseling or advising students over planning instruction

Very Often Often Rarely Never

  • At home, I find myself worrying about students’ personal challenges

Very Often Often Rarely Never

  • When I learn about a student’s life challenges, I personally feel his or her pain

Very Often Often Rarely Never

  • The time I spend at school leaves me exhausted and tired

Very Often Often Rarely Never

  • The time I spend working with kids beyond my contractual hours compromises my other relationships and my personal hobbies.

Very Often Often Rarely Never

Cures

I’m not fully cured of bleeding heart syndrome, but here is what’s helping:

1. Set Boundaries

Consider what situations you are most prone to straining your emotional reserve for others. Do kids or colleagues emerge from the woodwork and find you on your planning period? Do you get sucked into work email when decompressing at home? Do the walks to the front office take twice as much time as you’d like? Reflect on how your non-instructional time is spent. Then think: What are the boundaries I can set to protect my well-being?

2. Simplify

Dave Stuart captured this best when he wrote,

Whenever the pressure comes from us, that’s on us. We can do something about that.

If you’re feeling yourself being pulled toward disengagement by the undertow of pressure, take a fresh look at what you control. For the love of the children and yourself, make it simpler.

from “Staying Checked-in

While he was talking about disengagement, I see this in myself with over-engagement. If a student emails me about an issue, rather than taking a huge chunk of my time at home responding, I now respond the next morning with, “Let’s check in for a few minutes at lunch and figure out how to best support you.” Simplified. Honors my boundaries. Sets me up to:

3. Outsource

As a part of my boundary forming, I am making a mental shift away from “my student” to “our student.” When a colleague or kid comes to us in need, we feel a personal obligation. But obligation is not competency. Just because I want to help this kid doesn’t mean I’m the best — or only — person to help. Schedule some time to learn about the resources within your school and community that can help a student’s well-being. Then be ready to direct a student their way.

4. Forgive Yourself

There is nothing we can do to change the past, whether it was minutes, days, or years ago. Rumination is a major detriment to our well-being, so learning to let go of not being everyone’s savior is critical. Give yourself permission to be human and then dive into the research and practices around self-forgiveness.

5. Reject the false dichotomy

If you know me beyond this post, you may see some irony in these thoughts. I wrote a viral post all about losing sleep, pondering my students’ social-emotional lives. But the irony only exists if you believe that teaching is either all sacrifice or all complacency. I still believe more than ever that students need social-emotional support — through direct teaching and conversations beyond the classroom. But I also believe in the strategies above — that we need to set boundaries that allow us to be at our best so we can give our best. We can be selective about when to take extra time with a student and when to preserve extra time for ourselves.

Reject the “savior/failure” false dichotomy. You can lend your students care beyond the classroom and take care of yourself by setting boundaries. You can have concern for your students and simplify to yield a healthy work-life balance. You can still have a heart for teaching without letting it bleed out.

2 thoughts on “Curing “Bleeding Heart Syndrome”

  1. You brought up the post about losing sleep over your students as if this post feels like a contradiction. Your old post was motivating to the students who do the bare minimum so that they don’t set themselves up to giving up so easily. Setting boundaries with students and colleagues is NOT giving up. The pressure teachers face to “go above and beyond” is unreal and it will inevitably lead to burnout. I remember going to school to become a teacher and being told by professors constantly to market yourself towards the extracurriculars you can offer, the sports you could coach, etc. so that you can get hired. My first job, I made the mistake of saying yes to too many things, because I was made to feel like I almost had to, like I was at a buffet filling my plate and not having the appetite to finish it all. Perhaps I would still be a teacher today if I never felt that kind of pressure.

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