In Self-Care for Everyday Caregivers – Part 1, we discussed the applicability of concepts like compassion fatigue and burnout, which are familiar terms in the helping professions, to parents and everyday caregivers. We also looked at the imbalance that can occur when our compassion vessels have their caring spigot open without being adequately refilled – and symptoms that can help us recognize when this is happening.
Finding Your Answer
Let’s go back to the question posed in Part 1: How? How do I make a decision I can feel good about when my own needs and the needs of others are on the scale? Where do I find a balance that feels right for me and the people I care about?
We will explore the first question in a moment. The answer to the second question is found in the concept of sustainability. A balancing point that is sustainable is most likely the one that will also feel “right.” It may take different shapes for different people at different times, but the end result is the same: Finding that balancing point will help free up the energy that gets caught in resentment, irritation, self-criticism, and avoidance caused by imbalance so this energy can be used in ways that feel more nourishing, satisfying, and meaningful.
Putting Self-Care into Practice
There has been much written about concepts and practices such as radical self-care. What is “radical” about this for caregivers is the concept of placing a sense of urgency and importance on fulfilling one’s own needs as a top priority, thus flipping a caregiver’s instinctive priority order on its head.
Reframing our world concept to include self-care is not always easy. Whether due to underlying self-esteem or control issues, strong values and vision, habit, lack of practice, or some combination thereof, caregivers often find it challenging to choose to put themselves first. How does one go about putting this into practice? The answer: One step at a time.
The secret is to start with something small and doable enough to put into action for yourself now, today. There have been numerous books and articles written with tips for caregiver self-care (a handful of online resources appear at the end of this article). To get your creative juices flowing on applying this to your own life, I’ve created a list of a few of my favorite suggestions from these resources:
- Take an inventory of everything that’s on your plate – what are the various demands on you, mentally, emotionally, physically? Awareness is the best starting place.
- Identify and acknowledge your feelings – keep a journal or simply start allowing yourself to be aware of how you feel as it comes up, without judgment.
- Rebalance your days to make time for yourself every day – even if it’s a 5- or 10-minute mini-break once a day over a cup of tea or lying on the floor in Savasana.
- Create a transition time or ritual to help ease and honor the shift from work to home or from one portion of your day to the next.
- Exercise – endorphins and fitness can play an important role in maintaining physical, mental, and emotional health; creating realistic expectations that are doable is key to success.
- Create a self-care idea collection – enlist the help of friends, family, and colleagues; make it fun! Ideas might include journal writing, support groups, simple pleasures, social activities, afternoon naps, asking for comforting touch, or full-blown spa days. Now choose one to three that you will commit to acting on. Ask a friend to help hold you to that commitment.
- Ask for help – this is an important skill for caregivers to learn; it may surprise you to find friendships are taken to a new depth by this simple act (or conversely, may reveal friendships that need to shift their position outward from your innermost circle).
- Learn ways to say ‘no’ that feel right to you – sometimes a flat-out “No, I simply can’t right now” is the best answer; other times, you may choose to reduce your involvement without eliminating it: for example, “I can’t do X, but what I can do is Y” or “I can’t take on Z right now, but would love to be asked at another time.” Either way, you will likely experience what Lisa Wessan, LICSW, describes as the process of “evolving out of being a people pleaser and learning to set healthy boundaries to be better able to serve the greater good.”
- Breathing, visualization, and meditation – mindfulness practices not only help reduce stress, they also help us focus on what we have right now, in each moment, rather than focusing on what we may have had in the past or wish to have now or in the future.
- Acknowledge your successes – always important!
Along these lines, the University at Albany’s School of Social Work put together a Self-Care Starter Kit that includes a collection of self-care assessments, exercises, and activities that is well worth checking out.
Self-Care in Reality – Get Creative!
Now for the first question: “How do I make a decision I can feel good about when my own needs and the needs of others are on the scale?” Since checklists are just checklists and every one of us is different, I wanted to leave you with two quick examples of how a couple of innate caregivers have defined their own doorways to self-care.
I had the privilege of working with a woman who did a lovely job of reframing around this concept. Kindness is a strong value for this person, who always put others first – often at the exclusion of herself. In a breakthrough moment, she realized she could widen her kindness net to include herself among the people she cared for. This sliver of an opening created by her realization allowed self-compassion to slide gently into her days, which soon took the form of setting reasonable boundaries, which in turn allowed her to have more honest, open, and loving conversations with the people she cared about. She never lost her compassion for others; she simply added herself to the mix for the first time and in doing so discovered that she and those she loved were willing to do the work required to create balance.
In another example of a creative work-around developed by someone who regularly put off her own self-care in lieu of other priorities, a good friend of mine recently shared with me a fabulous strategy for finding time for self-care now, without procrastination. She decided to think of the things she might normally put off as gifts to her future self. In doing so, she is motivated by imagining the delight her future self will feel when the dishes are already done when she comes home or how good it will feel to her future self to have a healthier body, which then trumps the pleasure of eating that cookie now or the temptation to skip today’s walk. Note that this strategy actually uses a caregiver’s tendency to put others’ needs before their own to benefit their own future self. Brilliant!
We are all unique and there are no “right” or “wrong” answers. Whatever your pathway and strategy, I’d love to hear about it! Please be in touch. I look forward to connecting with you!
Vicarious Trauma & Self Care, presentation by Dr. Judith E. Pierson
Social Worker Self-Care – The Overlooked Core Competency by Kate Jackson
The Self-Care Starter Kit by the University of Buffalo School of Social Work
Running on Empty: Compassion Fatigue in Health Professionals By Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed., CCC. Compassion Fatigue Specialist
Fact Sheet: Taking Care of YOU: Self-Care for Family Caregivers by the Family Caregiver Alliance, National Center on Caregiving
Committing to Radical Self-Care: 5 tips to wake up feeling jazzed about the day ahead by Laura Markham Ph.D.
Radical Self Care 101 by Saraswati J.