by Jeanne M. Strauss
One of the problems clients talk about in therapy is the difficulty they have keeping their emotional balance when other people depend on them, make demands of their time and require their care. You may not recognize that you are in a “caregiver” role, but most of us give significant portions of our lives nurturing and caring for others.
It can be children, employees, students, patients, spouses, aging parents, siblings or friends facing hard times. When all or most of your energy is devoted to caring for others, you can easily find your own tank on “Empty,” unable to meet anyone’s needs, including your own. Here are some ways to keep from burning out while caring for others:
- Connect and Recharge. Make time in your life for the people who recharge your batteries. Shore up your support system by learning a new skill or hobby, finding a group that understands the issues you face and learning how to ask for help. You don’t have to do it all alone. You may be surprised how willing others are to help if you ask them for something specific instead of something vague. “I need more help,” leaves others unsure of what to do. “Can you please take mom to the doctor on Friday?” gives a willing friend a specific way to help.
- Take Good Breaks. Give yourself permission to rest, relax and rejuvenate. Good breaks include things like going for a run, reading an uplifting book, getting a massage, taking a hot bath, going to yoga class, cooking yourself a great meal, etc. You’ll know you’ve taken a good break when you feel energized,more relaxed and feel more in control of your emotions. Bad breaks include lost time on TV marathons, hours on Facebook or playing endless Candy Crush, activities that are essentially draining, addictive time-wasters. Breaks should energize you, not make you feel more sluggish, more overwhelmed and less in control.
- Stop Feeling Guilty. One of the most difficult things about caring for another person is that we can’t control their experience of life. Chances are they are not going to be happy all the time. But when they aren’t happy, we may feel a lot of guilt. Your “To Do” list will never be done, so you have to be able to let go of guilt when it isn’t finished. Self-criticism for not being “good enough” is a false mindset that you can change. When guilt rules our relationships, it prevents us from being present in the moment with the person we care for.
- Go Back to the Basics. Whenever you get lost or overwhelmed, remember to regroup and ask yourself a few simple questions: Have I been sleeping 7-8 hours a night? Have I been feeding myself good, nourishing food? Have I been playing, laughing, relaxing each day? Have I been physically active each day? These are the basic elements that our bodies need to keep us emotionally balanced. Start taking care of your mind by taking care of your body. Be sure you have the basics covered.
It can be emotionally and physically draining to care for others, and it is easy to lose touch with ourselves in the process. Isolation, exhaustion, weight gain or weight loss, sleep deprivation, feelings of guilt, anger and resentment are all signs that you are out of balance.
If you don’t take care of yourself, your tank will soon tip to “Empty” and you will have nothing left to give. Within the therapy and health care community, we call this “compassion fatigue,” but it applies to anyone in a caregiver role. The four tasks above will help you retain your compassion, energy and enthusiasm, allowing you to continue to offer the amazing gift you give to those you care for.
Jeanne Strauss, LCSW, is a therapist in San Antonio working with individuals and couples. She has been a licensed clinical social worker for 25 years, specializing in anxiety, stress, personal development, couples counseling, communication and resolving negative relationship patterns. She can be reached at 210-787-6384 or www.jeannestrauss.com.