Why Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

Self-Care, burnout, stress

Caregiver personalities will give beyond their own capacities, thus skirting the edge of emotional bankruptcy too often and too long.

There are so many people in the world, including mental health workers, who have big hearts and are truly driven by the desire to help other people…yet they view self-care as a dirty word. The desire to help is a good thing, because it helps make the world a kinder place to those who have been dealt a raw hand. Unfortunately, in the absence of good self-care, these same kind-hearted people also tend to suffer from compassion fatigue, anxiety, persistently low mood, exhaustion or feel chronically conflicted about meeting their own needs vs. others’ needs. Why? Surprisingly, it springs from the same root…they want to help others so much that they will give beyond their own capacities, thus skirting the edge of emotional bankruptcy too often and too long.

The role of caregiver encompasses far more than health care workers, however. Anyone who adopts the role of caring for others (and putting their own needs on the back burner) can land squarely in the exhausted caregiver category. This might include parents, those caring for elderly relatives, heart-centered supervisors, hyper-responsible coworkers, or “fixers” who take it as their personal responsibility to right every wrong they encounter. The world needs all sorts of folks – so we need the fixers and caregivers. The real key, though, is that we really need them to be healthy, as it is the only way to continue being a giver over the long haul.

One of the most important aspects of being healthy – for anyone – is engaging in routine self-care. This translates into planned as well as spontaneous daily, weekly and monthly-self-care activities. We all need good self-care, but this is even more important if you have a caregiver personality or find you are more frequently depleting your personal reserves due to demanding jobs, relationships or life tasks. When these reserves are not restored, it leads to the tell-tale signs of burnout, distress, irritability, mood swings, or other mental health symptoms. How people respond to stress is highly individual, though, which means your stress response may look very different from the next person.

In the coming weeks, we will present a self-care series geared toward raising awareness for the crucial importance of practicing good self-care. Right off the bat, though, it is necessary to quell one of the major objections (even if subconsciously) that service-oriented people will immediately raise: “But if feels so selfish! I just can’t do that.” Really? Being a selfish person means that you so consistently put your own needs ahead of others that it damages relationships, social status, or compromises the health of those around you. Selfish people often do not care how their behavior affects other people and are okay with their own desires and needs impinging on the others’ rights. So, let’s ask the obvious question: Does this description of selfishness fit any known definition of a “caregiver”? No! Of course not.

If you sincerely want to continue to give to those around you, as is the desire of most service-oriented and caring people, you must also leave room for good self-care. We will talk about this at length in the coming weeks. For now, here is your assignment: Make a list of activities (or relaxing settings) that make you feel calm, peaceful, centered, hopeful, relaxed, etc. It can be as simple as closing your eyes and taking a handful of slow, deep breaths or it can be as involved as taking an elaborate vacation. Make as exhaustive of a list as you can. Next, sort them into three categories as to what you can do daily, weekly/monthly, or 1-4 times per year. Start your daily practice now and keep your list handy during this series. Until then…go further and practice!

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