- Case Study: Chris Releases Chronic Shoulder Tension
- A Public Interest Lawyer’s Road Out of Burnout
Taylor came to work with me because she had fallen out of some of her routines during the pandemic, and now that the housework had piled up, it was overwhelming to tackle it. She knew she would feel better if she started to socialize more again, and she thought handling this housework would make her more likely to do so. So she decided to participate in my pilot of Painless Productivity for 10 sessions.
As you’ll see below, we discovered that her craving for socializing was coming from an empathetic part of her that was burned out by her job in eviction defense law, and wanted to empathize with people’s joy instead of just their pain. We were able to release some of the pain the empathetic part was holding on to, and set Taylor up to be less vulnerable to that kind of burnout in the future. This graphic summarizes her journey through layers of parts on the way to a less burned-out lifestyle.
Sessions 1-5: Slowly Warming Up
In sessions 1-4, we explored what parts of Taylor got activated when she imagined tackling a chore she had been avoiding. We met a variety of parts of her, learned some things about them, and offered them some empathy. Taylor started to notice that she was processing negative reactions better in everyday life.
This stage of Taylor’s work was a little bit like mingling at a party. She was able to start a lot of relationships with her parts, but she wasn’t able to build much trust with them, because she could only spend a few minutes with one before another one wanted her attention. She also reported feeling unsure about how to communicate with her parts.
One reason I wanted to share this case study is that, unlike Chris’s sudden muscle release, Taylor didn’t see big changes right away. I want to give you an honest view into the variety of how this work goes, and to reassure people who don’t immediately grok how to communicate with parts of their mind. As you’ll see, a slow start can lead up to meaningful results.
In session 5, I checked in to make sure she was okay with our pace and with this modality. My clients are free to end our coaching engagement early if they feel like parts work just isn’t their thing. But Taylor wanted to stick with it, so we spent this session exploring her feelings about parts work and setting the stage for future sessions.
Sessions 6-7: Addressing Gateway Protectors’ Concerns
Having laid this groundwork, we started to make our way towards Taylor’s anxious part, which we sensed was related to her issue. Along the way, we encountered several of what I call “gateway” protectors—parts with concerns about letting us access her feelings about the issue.
First, we talked to a frustrated part. Taylor empathized with the part, but it said it didn’t want empathy; it wanted action. I suggested that she tell the part that she understood that empathy wasn’t enough.
This simple act of recognition was a turning point in Taylor’s work. It was the first time she seemed to experience what I call the “magic” of parts work. She could physically feel the part relax, and she found that this part didn’t need anything else from her in this session.
We met several other parts on our way towards her anxious part: a “processing” part that manages the emotions of other parts, a skeptical part that wondered if we really needed to work with the anxious part, and a “fixer” that wanted to fix the anxious part. One by one, we addressed their concerns, and they softened, letting us continue.
Session 8: Discovering Empathy Fatigue Under the Anxiety
At this point we started to work with what I call the “issue protectors,” the parts whose behaviors are contributing to the issue.
We had been granted access to Taylor’s anxious part, and we learned that it was trying to fend off another part that held existential dread. The anxiety serves to remind her of things she can fix, while the dread tells her to “do something!” about big problems in the world that she can’t actually fix.
As she talked to it, the existential dread part opened up and told us that it’s trying to keep her empathetic part from getting hurt.
In connecting with her empathetic part, we reached the deepest level in our journey, the burdened part that drives the protective behaviors.
The empathetic part had it rough, because Taylor’s job constantly exposes her to the suffering that our unjust society causes. The part expressed a need for more social support so it could empathize with people’s happiness, too.
All along, we’d been focusing on the overwhelm of catching up on chores, but the ultimate aim of the housework goal was really to socialize more. Now, we understood where that cry for more socializing was coming from. I like to say that parts work gives you what you need, not just what you want. If I had just motivated Taylor to do her housework and held her accountable to it, we probably wouldn’t have found this part that needed our help.
The empathetic part told Taylor that it was carrying emotional burdens that it wanted a break from, but it was afraid that if it let them go forever, Taylor would become uncaring. I know that Taylor’s core self will always care for others, but it’s important to respect parts’ concerns. I suggested that the part could take a break from the burdens by putting them in a mental box for safe keeping, and the part liked that idea.
Session 9: Addressing Current and Future Empathy Fatigue
The empathetic part had enjoyed leaving its burdens in a box, but it had accumulated more burdens from her job in the meantime. So we took a two-pronged approach to both address the current burdens and leave the part more resilient to future ones.
- We invited the empathetic part to release any burdens it doesn’t need. The part decided to burn imaginary effigies of things that it had been feeling bad about that Taylor no longer had any control over. (It chose to keep its general empathy, because Taylor doesn’t want to fall prey to the tendency to empathize with a specific person but not with large groups of people, like those in poverty.)
- We invited the empathetic part to feel Taylor’s compassion, and to notice how compassion is caring and yet doesn’t hurt as much as empathetically taking on another’s pain does. (What we often call “compassion fatigue” is actually “empathy fatigue.”) The part decided to use compassion more often in the future.
Then the empathetic part let Taylor know that it was driven to over-empathize by a feeling of guilt. This led us to a third way to help the empathetic part:
- We released the drive to over-empathize. The guilt-holding part joined the imaginary bonfire, burning the guilt it no longer needed and inviting in appreciation instead.
Session 10: Planning a Sustainable Way Forward
I like to end my coaching packages with a wrap-up session. We reviewed our work together and celebrated her wins. Then we discussed ways she could maintain the progress she’d made during coaching and what she wanted to do next. She plans to keep using some of the tools that she learned—especially the mental bonfires!
I’m so glad we stuck it out through the first several sessions when it wasn’t clear how much progress we would make. Our slow process of building trust with her parts paid off when they brought us to the crux of her issue—empathetic burnout—and to an even deeper insight about a hidden cause of that burnout. Over and over again, I find that the wisdom I encounter when I listen deeply to a person’s feelings surpasses any advice I would have given them.